PAINTING FROM LIFE -- painting based on direct observation of the visible world and not on conceptions or conventional images or memories of it -- emerged with enormous impact in the second and third decades of 15th century. Painting after nature -- the representation of landscape based upon direct observation -- emerged concurrently.
Naturalistic representations of landscape appeared first as backgrounds in paintings from the Gothic north -- notably in those of Hubert and Jan van Eyck. As Focillon puts it, these paintings, "deepened the space behind the images [and] invented a new dimension... entirely accessible to the eye." They were and remain wonderful.
Naturalism of this high order had been long in preparation, stimulated by both late medieval manuscript illumination and Gothic sculpture: in a sense, painters strove to emulate the naturalistic figures of sculpture with the luminous colour of illumination. This wasn't accomplished easily. The conventions which dominated painting at the time resisted their impulse, favouring schematic figures and flat, blank backgrounds. Until the van Eycks painters lacked the genius to accomplish their ambitions. Yet even the van Eycks' genius may have been insufficient apart from new means. Conveniently, these were provided by two great technological developments of the early 15th century - oil paint and manufactured paper.
Of the two, paper may well have been the more important. Although it had long been known in the Oriental and Muslim worlds it hadn't become widely available in Europe until the early 14th century, at which time industrial production made it immediately cheaper than parchment and vellum. Paper quickly made itself indispensable, both practically and creatively. Its most revolutionary consequence was the printed book. But its importance went far beyond that. Its light weight and low cost meant that it was disposable, something the West appears to have uniquely seized upon. It quickly became the standard material for record keeping, correspondence, and financial transactions. In the visual arts paper's disposability was no less consequential. There it gave new scope to drawing, making possible a great variety of preparatory studies for paintings.
One of the earliest of of these -- the study for a painted portrait -- was drawn by Jan van Eyck. By its very existence it suggests that van Eyck's genius had seized upon the potential of paper Previouos artists had been severely limited in their ability to replicate nature. How to train one's hand to capture appearances when in the absence of a cheap, disposable material to practise upon? Paper enabled the eye to teach the hand in a new way, and artists were quick to take advantage of it.. By the 16th century, they'd taken to drawing from life prodigiously and for a variety of purposes, from anatomical studies to rapid layout sketches of painterly pictures. The great era of "old master drawings" had begun.
The painted landscape as we know it today was inconceivable apart from the portable and disposable support provided by paper. As a result, between the 15th and 18th Centuries, the drawn sketch on paper become the paramount means by which artists recorded nature.
As Focillon observed, the van Eycks created space around and behind their figures and gave them air to breathe. This space and air came from their invention of "aerial perspective," which exploited oil paint, the other great emergent art technology of 15th century. Because of its range of colour and ability to blend and blur, oil paint could suggest the illusion of distance through gradations of color and tone. In doing so, it made possible landscape painting as we know it today.
It was only a matter of time before the illusionistic backgrounds of oil paintings took on a life of their own and became themselves the picture subject. This came about gradually through the diminution of figures in in relation to the whole. Such transitional paintings suggested that figures were harmonious parts of a natural whole. Eventually they could be abandoned altogether.
These "pure" landscape paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries reinforced the concept of the picture as an aesthetic object, a work of art to be appreciated in and of itself rather than a means tell a story or make a point. The viewer responded intuitively and aesthetically to the painted landscape as he might to a real scene. This tendency to capture landscape as a vehicle of feeling is suggested in the 17th century by what Roger Fry called Claude Lorraine's "golden glow" as well as by the dramatic skies of Dutch painters like Ruisdael. When the sky became a major participant in the depicted landscape, disinterested appreciation of the picture became a primary artistic objective.
However, painting after nature didn't mean painting on site; until the late 18th century it meant drawing on site. Although artists after the 15th century and later worked from nature with pencil or ink, the problem of working with colour eluded them. In the early 16th century, Albrecht Dürer, to be sure, had painted small watercolours on his travels, but his innovation remained undeveloped for two and a half centuries.
In the 15th through 17th centuries, painting in oils was confined to the studio. There, models, draperies, and props could be arranged to the artist's satisfaction. To paint in colours directly from nature called for a host of other enabling factors, particularly improved means of travel and the availability of lightweight equipment and materials. In the 17th century Claude Lorraine worked from nature in ink and wash. While his works in this medium have a "modern" directness, his studio paintings were contrived in comparison.
A major step forward came in the 18th century, when British artists like Alexander Cozens and his son John Robert used watercolours to capture nature directly. Their subjects were drawn from the Grand Tour as well as rural England: to them we owe, among other things, our sympathetic perception of alpine scenery. Because it brought painting with colour out of doors, watercolour became preeminently a landscape medium. It was developed substantially by the great English painters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries: Thomas Girtin, J. M. W. Turner, and John Sell Cotman. John Constable enlarged the tradition yet again by painting sketches from directly nature in oils, enabling a more direct connection between the sketch and the studio picture. In this Constable was a pioneer, a forerunner of the great main stream of 19th century painting.
By the mid 19th century the development of oil paint in tubes, industrial pigments, and increased access to the country offered by railroads paved the way for the French Barbizon painters and the Impressionists. For the first time artists were able to paint easel pictures directly from nature. By the 1870s, landscape had become the paramount focus for ambitious artists. The great Impressionist paintings from this period were begun (and sometimes finished) out of doors. Painting en plein air became for the Impressionists and their followers a norm, and gave us masterpieces of world art.
In our own century, enabling developments have continued. In Canada, the Group of Seven took full advantage of an expanding national rail system to present a complex vision of an enormous new country. After World War II, the automobile, and the roads which accommodated it, provided greater access to landscape subjects, both distant and near. The automobile enabled city-based artists to travel quickly to and from rural areas. In recent years landscape painters been able to travel widely and work virtually from portable studios. This portability has enabled them to work from nature on an increasingly large scale.
© Terry Fenton 1996