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Western Landscape and Seascape painting, as genres, have been with us for about 400 years. Initially both were included in pictures of other subjects as background fill or to give the picture depth. In Renaissance painting landscape is often fantastically represented to give a feel of where we are rather than realistic depiction. Until about the 17th century landscape was not generally considered a painterly subject.  Now we find landscape and seascape painted for all sorts of reasons: in its own right, as a locator of action, to help identify a sitter, painted mystically to make some metaphysical point or the subject of an abstract work where the physical details are submerged in a painting which is meant to be a work of art on its own.

Perugino 1448-1523, Italian; studied in Florence with Verroccio worked Rome at St Peters Basilica
The Combat of Love and Chastity, 1523
Oil on canvas, 160 x 191 cm
Perugino probably learnt the new technique of oil painting in Verroccio’s studio in Florence and went on to become one of the leading painters of his day. He worked with Raphael and others painting frescos in the Sistine Chapel. A hard-working and prolific painter he was, and has subsequently been criticised for, producing pictures which were considered too ‘charming’. Perugino was a profound influence on the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the 19th century.
Our interest in this picture is as an early landscape rather than the somewhat macabre events it shows. Note how the valley sweeping away to our right gives the picture depth along with the receding sizes of the trees. Here the landscape is used solely as a ‘filler’ for the action and to help with composition structure. It is probably imaginary. However for a picture completed in 1523 the landscape is remarkably detailed.

Aelbert Cuyp, 1620-1691; Dutch
River Landscape with Horseman and Peasants, late 1650s
Oil on canvas, 123 x 241 cm
National Gallery, London
Cuyp was initially taught by his father, a portrait painter but moved on to paint landscapes and still life. He helped bring 'Italian’ light into Dutch painting and his landscapes in particular glow with a southern goldenness. One of the most important early Dutch landscape painters many of the pictures ascribed to him may have been painted by his father and contemporary copyists. Interestingly he is better represented in British collections than Dutch. He painted mostly commissions rather than for the general art market.
Cuyp worked mainly for the Dutch upper class of his day painting their houses and families to reinforce social status. This picture is almost certainly painted from one such house and the imaginary landscape is composed to flatter the householder. The scene stretches away to out-size mountains under a towering sky, the land-owner surveys his flocks and workers from the commanding height of horseback. The happy scene is redolent of wealth, status, prosperity and patrician concern for those things. The landscape is bathed in peaceful, majestic, golden light; God is in his heaven and the world rolls predictably and securely onwards. A gently humorous note is introduced by a hunter on the far left about shatter the peace by discharging his weapon.  

This is the Cuyp picture significantly brightened so that the gunman on the left becomes more visible.


John Constable, 1776-1837, British
Weymouth Bay with Jordan Hill, 1816?
Oil on canvas, 53x x75 cm
National Gallery London
Constable along with Turner is the most important landscape painter in British painting. This may be seen as a reflection of the ability of these two men or alternatively a commentary on British landscape painting since their deaths! He lived much of his life in Suffolk on the east coast of England but retired to London later in life. Constable made a somewhat hesitant start and only began painting full time after about 1799; he was made ARA in 1819 and began to win general recognition in the 1820s. He was always financially secure, gaining an inheritance from his father and marrying into a wealthy family. His landscapes are a visual statement of his love of country and especially the changing effects of light. He painted a “direct and immediate vision of nature” to quote from the Oxford Companion, completing rapid oil and water colour sketches, as well as drawings out-of-doors to capture the moment. These sketches were subsequently developed into full-scale pictures, shown as ‘finished’ pictures or left, as the present picture; a ‘sketch’, which though formally unfinished represented the light and cloud effects at the time of making the picture. Constable’s painting inspired many including Delacroix but was especially noticed by the developing French Impressionists.
Weymouth Bay with Jordan hill is a sketch- an unfinished picture released to the market. It shows clouds, landscape and light at the time of making and the painter lacked the time to finish the picture and the make the full ‘impression’ while the cloud and light effects passed his view. We can see the red-brown canvas preparation coming through the clouds at the centre of the picture. Nevertheless it is a spectacular showing of nature. Constable has set his easel up on the stony beach keeping the right promontory in the picture to help frame the right side and force the recession of Jordan Hill. The bay curves away to a bright spot in the sky to the left. Our eye travels back along the bay to the easel as it completes its circuit of the picture. It is the clouds though which give this composition its majestic presence. Foaming up into the sky to our left they portent thundery, stormy weather and fairly soon. Light is reflected and absorbed by them; they twist and pile in their domed atmospheric space and fold away taking our eye from the land and into the sky above us. We are brought into the picture space itself. Some observers noted that an umbrella was a useful accompaniment when viewing Constable’s pictures as rain often seemed so immanent.

J. M.W., Turner, 1775-1851, British
Norham Castle, Sunrise, 1835-40
Oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm
Tate Gallery London
Surely the greatest English painter Turner led by deed and example certainly for the latter part of his life. A seminal influence on the French Impressionists his fleeting, large scale light capture paintings continue to inspire. He was born in London but travelled to the Continent and throughout rural Britain during his painting life. A frantic worker he would often be finishing pictures as they hung on the walls of exhibitions- indeed the Tate Gallery contains a surprising number of pictures which are very obviously not finished but masterpieces nevertheless. Like his contemporary, Constable, Turner was never without his sketch book and made ‘notes’ of landscape and light effects wherever he was. His earlier pictures are strongly representational but contain hints of the atmospherics to follow. His later works are miracles of light play and abstraction and were much ahead of their time. It is a monument to their power and Turner’s reputation that the later paintings were accepted in conservative, stodgy Victorian England.
Norham Castle, Sunrise is a masterpiece of Turner’s later work. The castle solidifies the end of a prominent hill at the end of a long low valley. A shallow stream flows toward us reflecting the pastel sky. Smudges of paint pick out the land. The sun, blurred behind light cloud, illuminates the scene having just risen over the hillside gently waking the light in the picture. Faint pinks and mauves steal across the sky and are repeated in the valley below. A solitary deer is the only living creature. The picture is very accomplished; depth indicated by subtle tone changes, distance by the slightest change of colour. The castle though only hinted at dominates the landscape and pushes the picture forward in the middle left but, by contrast, helps the horizon to recede apparently forever to the far right. Turner is using a quite different painting style to that of the Impressionists but his subordinating the subject to make the light defacto subject and painting a moment in time were ideas which strongly influenced them.

Andrew Wyeth, American, 1917-2009
Christina’s World, 1948
Tempora on gessoed panel, 83 x 121 cm
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Wyeth was the son of an illustrator and worked predominantly in the Renaissance medium of Tempora. He lived and painted in Pennsylvania and Maine. His meticulously painted works often introduce odd viewing angles and concealed physiological motives. His impersonal and frequently unsettling pictures are based on people and places he knows and he has been labelled as ‘provincial’ by some commentators.
Christina Olsen was disabled by polio and Wyeth gives visual hints of this in the thin, angled right arm, the irregular twist of the body and the trailing left leg. Intellectually very sharp, she possessed a keen love of nature. She looks upward at two buildings silhouetted against the sky at the top of a slope which rises steeply away from her. The landscape is meticulously painted as is the human occupant; individual blades of grass and hairs are delineated with great deliberateness. We arrive at the top of the hill from Christina’s curving body by travelling the subtlety painted slope and not rushing straight to the dramatic buildings at the top.   Wyeth’s superb tonal painting and marginal changes of colour in the grass lead our eye upward; a metaphor perhaps for Christina’s love and knowledge of the fine structure of the landscape in which she is placed. The buildings at the picture’s summit dominate the skyline but not the picture: note the detailed painting of the ladder and its shadow; Wyeth again commanding our attention to detail. Crippled Christina is shown here as a woman of vision and potential, someone who understands her condition, her place in the affairs of landscape and someone who is not limited by restrictions which we might place upon her.

Russell Drysdale, 1912- 1981, Australian
Man in a Landscape, 1963
Oil on canvas, 90 x 116 cm
Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second
Drysdale was born in England and arrived in Australia as a child. He studied with George Bell in Melbourne (1931), in England 1935-8 and Paris 1938-9. He worked as a Jackeroo upon leaving school, beginning a relationship with the land which would remain with his painting for life. Though defective eyesight kept him out of the Second World War he continued working as an artist including wartime buildings and themes in his work during the 1940s. He travelled overseas in 1950, 1957 and 1965 prior to travelling around Australia in car and caravan. A notable draughtsman, Drysdale’s style began to include large figures of aboriginals, outback inhabitants and outback workers in later pictures. Dramatic colour and shapes characterise his paintings. He never saw the need to live overseas as did his contemporaries, Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Jeffrey Smart et al. He is the most Australian of painters filling canvases and drawing paper with the vastness, inhospitability and emptiness of the Australian landscape though always infusing his work with subtlety and metaphysical meaning.
Man in a landscape shows an Aboriginal stockman- a frequent Drysdale subject- maintaining metaphoric and physical possession of his land by holding on to it. He looms over the front of the picture, gigantic, dominating boulders menace the space behind him; friends to him but alien to others. Dead trees straggle across the canvas, the greeny/blue sky in the top half of the canvas creating picture depth. Middle-ground depth and contour is shown by changing tone in the red clay and dusty earth. The triangular arrangement at the picture front and over-sized arms of the stockman subtly introduce a steep perspective into the picture, though the piercing, accusative eyes inhibit a quick appreciation of what is directly behind the figure. As in all of Drysdale’s outback pictures red is the dominating colour except where the paint has been scraped back to reveal the white preparation surface. This is a powerful picture of dispossession and implied ownership.

Willem de Kooning, American, 1904-97
Pastorale, 1963
Oil on canvas, 178 x 203 cm
Private collection
Born in Rotterdam where he studied fine art de Kooning moved to America in 1926. He worked as a commercial artist and teacher including a stint at Yale University. His highly individual abstract expressionist style evolved through expressionism, cubism and surrealism. De Kooning was a leading member of the New York Abstract Expressionist group in the 50s and continued painting in that style until the end of his long life. His pictures repay viewing patience. His painterly style is characterised by inventive use of colour, occasional slashing composition, vulgarity and turbulent depiction of spatial arrangement.
Pastorale is one of the many de Kooning pictures which the beginning viewer of art will have difficulty with. Very often gallery visitors will not spend too long attempting to unravel what de Kooning is on about and pass on to something more accessible. Along with Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell for instance, de Kooning’s pictures often attract ill-informed negative comment. It is certainly best to approach de Kooning having understood, or at least be aware of, the movements which influenced him.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘pastorale’…‘of shepherds and flocks; relating to flocks and herds…land used for pasture…portraying country life. Knowing that de Kooning was a precise man we should therefore look for these influences in the picture we are investigating. Knowing also that the abstract expressionists painted feeling and mood rather than representation and that their pictures were often created very quickly to capture some transitory experience we should be prepared not to find a picture of  something, rather a picture of ‘experience’ which we are invited to share.
Pastorale contains no recognisable landscape feature and certainly no images of shepherds and flocks. Yet since de Kooning has given the picture that name we should use the dictionary definition to help us understand his picture. There may be figures; one lying horizontally across the middle of the composition (de Kooning often moved around his paintings whilst working so perhaps this figure might be seen as standing upright with the right of the frame being the base- aboriginal artists do the same thing), another standing at the top right and perhaps another lying in the upper centre. There may be landscape features on the right and left funnelling our view to the back of the picture plane. Perhaps we see the sky in the centre top. But above all we get a feel for landscape in a pastorale mood. A soft, inviting light emanates from the canvas, subtle pastorale pinks hint at the play of light at the end or beginning of the day, we are lead into the picture by the Cezannesque technique of warm colours at the front cooler colours at the back. The combination of colour, peaceful and turbulent shape, hinted at space all in a large, but not overpowering, picture  lead us to feel that this land is not antagonistic or threatening, it may be a place for flocks and herds, where country life may peacefully proceed. We are invited to sit in the sun, take a walk along the beach to incorporate the land into our day and indeed our life.

Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-90, Dutch, worked in France
Seascape at Saintes-Maries, 1888?
Oil on canvas
The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts: Moscow
Van Gogh painted most of his pictures in the last ten years of his life. He worked at the same time as the Post Impressionist painters but was an early practitioner of Expressionism. Van Gogh’s life was essentially one of poverty, mental illness and despair. He finally took his own life. Ironically he is now recognised world wide and his popular pictures, e.g. the iris and sunflower pictures are much reproduced for popular use. He successively worked in an art dealership, as a protestant preacher and as an artist enjoying no success during his lifetime. He was supported throughout his life by his brother Theo. He was a prolific letter writer and as a result we know a great deal about his life and how he felt about the contemporary art and social scenes. He moved to Arles in France for the last few years of his life hoping to establish an art community with the French painter Gauguin. This venture was never wholeheartedly supported by Gauguin who soon left Van Gogh to his own devices and ultimate suicide.  Whilst at Arles Van Gogh painted over 200 canvases. He sold very few if any large canvases during his life time- a great irony considering the millions of dollars for which his pictures change hands now on the rare occasions they come on the market.
Seascape at Saintes-Maries shows sail boats scudding about on a tossing sea. Angular sail-sets show boats travelling in all directions as they complete some assigned race. The seas nearest us may be shallower as the wave tops are beginning to break up. Sea and sky are rendered in quick impulsive brush strokes and indeed Van Gogh completed this picture at one sitting. The whole expressionistic canvas flicks with movement; boats dash this way and that, the choppy sea is blown about by a useful wind for yachting and sky colours reflect in the water. Our eye rushes from the lighter-coloured foreground, along the line of boats before travelling more slowly throughout the sky with its muted purple highlights. The picture is a masterpiece of Van Gogh’s later, best work.

Paul Klee, 1879-1940, Swiss, worked in Germany
Port and Sail Boats, 1937
Oil on canvas, 80 x 66 cm
Pompidou Centre Paris
Klee settled in Munich in 1906 after travelling to Italy and Paris. He trained as a graphic artist and much of his early work was in black and white. Painting became his main preoccupation after about 1914. He worked with Kandinsky around 1911 and exhibited with the Blue Reiter (Rider) group in the 1920s. The Blue Reiter group practised expressionism and began to paint the first abstract pictures. In 1920 he was appointed to the staff of the Bauhaus- an institution devoted to the propagation of the latest ideas in design, architecture and painting and he taught there until 1933 when he left for Switzerland. He fell foul of the Nazis who confiscated 102 of his works labelling them degenerate. Ironically an exhibition of this ‘Degenerate’ art in 1937, which included seventeen pictures by Klee, helped establish his reputation as one of Europe’s leading artists.
There are strong parallels between this picture and the previous Van Gogh canvas. Both feature essentially the same subject-sailing boats taking advantage of the wind. Boats are shown pared down to sails, port buildings sketched with just a few lines, the coastline with a truncated curve. Nevertheless the boats criss-cross each other’s paths busily using the wind, wakes are shown with a single direction-defining line. Out to sea larger vessels are to be seen involved in more serious shipping business. The picture is really an elegant drawing with smudges of colour illustrating light. Our eye moves around the composition without the aid of commonly used devices; we simply follow the set of the sails. There is no perspective.

Malcolm Morley, British, b 1931
Beach Scene, 1968
Oil on canvas, 279 x 228 cm
Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.
Morley was born in London and came to art after spending time in prison. He studied at the Royal College and began to paint abstract expressionist pictures after seeing an exhibition of contemporary American art. In 1958 he moved to New York and began to paint minimalist and colour field pictures but after meeting Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein began to paint photo-realist pictures often using a grid to transfer photographs or advertising pictures to canvas. He would then complete the image by painting each square of the grid individually sometimes with the original picture upside down! This allowed the introduction of some abstraction into the picture. The result is a giant reproduction with well developed three-dimensional quality. Morley began to paint more expressionistic pictures in the 1970s and in 1894 won the inaugural Turner Prize.
Beach Scene is taken from a posed advertising photo where the ‘family’ is in fact adult and child models. The man is in fact an advertising agency director. Here is the archetypal American family enjoying a day of family bonding and sun at the beach. The males have prominent positions in the picture with the females in subordinate compositional positions; a 60s technique presumably lending authority to the advertising thrust. Nothing-out-of-place hair and fake smiles create an uneasiness in Morley’s large picture which would have been overlooked in the original advertising photograph as prospective punters absorbed only the corporate message. This is photo-realistic painting but is also Pop Art with is anti-corporate, anti-plastic relationship message.