It’s surprising how many landscape painters don’t have a working knowledge of the art history of landscape painting. With the prevalence of social media today it’s easy to ‘follow’ contemporary artists whose work you admire, and many of us do. But, a far smaller number make the effort to connect with their artistic heritage as landscape painters.
Perhaps you remember that course in college—the dark room with an endless stream of images of gothic cathedrals or renaissance paintings flashing on a screen over the low hum of the slide projector, the droning voice of the professor, while you tried not to fall asleep? Maybe you vowed never to do that again! There is no doubt that art history. can seem like a very dense subject.
Most traditional art historians employ a formal analysis which derives from Heinrich Wolfflin’s Principles of Art History, published in 1915, which was an attempt to create a methodology of examination and analysis of stylistic changes that could be used to classify the art of any given period in art history. By applying the overarching principles the idea was that an art historian could not only utilize language that would have specific meaning to all scholars but which would cover the vast array of stylistic differences that might be encountered.
Entire college courses are devoted to Wolfflin (I’ve been there and done that) but suffice it to say that while these concepts can be very useful, they also can have led to thinking about art history as an episodic story with winners and losers, depending on the prevailing tastes of the time. Whole art movements can be relegated to the ash heap if they are deemed out of step with the “march of development” (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical, Rococo, Realism, Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Modern, Post-Modern, Conceptual…..) as decreed by the official version of Western art history. In fact, almost all of 19th century American landscape painting was in exactly that position until just a few short decades ago!
So, we have to keep in mind that the official version of art history does not necessarily tell the whole story, and the desire to find influences and affinities in the art of earlier times or art that is concurrent with the period under study is sometimes strained beyond the point of usefulness.
Secondly, as artists, we approach this work from a different perspective. What we seek to know and understand is something beyond the recitation of facts, a cataloging of influences or affinities or even biographical facts (although those are all things we should know). We want to know what made this artist make this art at this time, and what if anything we can learn that will help our work. We want, most of all, to look at the work with an understanding of the person who made it and his or her time, and to see it with fresh eyes. We want not to only look on art with the cool eye of formal analysis, but to be riveted by it, to fall in love with it, and to acquire some of its power.
Art historians believe that paintings come from paintings. Here is Barbara Novak making that point in Nature and Culture (an excellent book on 19th century landscape painting) and admitting the possibility that it isn’t always so:
“To be instructed by pictures on how to look at nature is a rarely considered art historical question. Though it is a simple and plausible idea, the concept that some American work resulted from a direct recourse to nature challenges some basic art historical theories. Most of us, as we prowl the corridors of artistic genealogies, subscribe to Gombrich’s notion of art coming from art, Yet there is a basic danger for the art historian who overlooks the potential power of the natural experience per se. No matter how much we may wish to speak of artistic histories, it is important to remember that quite apart from “art” nature offers its own rich resources to the artist’s eye and mind.”
As a landscape painter, I could hardly keep from laughing out loud when I read that. How could it be any other way? How as landscape painters could our work not be formed by the “power of the natural experience”? The fact that Novak felt compelled to concede that it just might be the case, tells us about the different perspective that we bring to the study of art history.
And yet, art does also come from art, and if you don’t know about that lineage, you are missing out on a big part of what it means to be an artist. It’s like deciding to take up classical piano without ever hearing the music of Beethoven or Mozart!
So while we may bring a different perspective to our study of the art history of landscape painting, it is still important to understand and appreciate our artistic heritage. As my friend and mentor Hollis Williford advised, “educate yourself by studying and discovering all of the giants on whose shoulders you wish to stand.”