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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What is a Landscape Painting?

A painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire by Cezanne.  Is this a landscape painting?

I recently heard from a student who told me about a painting workshop she'd taken from an artist friend of mine.  The workshop topic was the landscape.  At one point, when looking at the student's work, the teacher said, "That's not really a landscape."

Having not seen the painting myself, I can only guess at what the teacher meant.  We usually think of the landscape as having a wide view with a sense of distance.  The student may have painted a more intimate close-up, such as a painting of a single tree—a portrait, if you will.  I'm not commenting on either student or teacher, but the incident makes me wonder:  What is a landscape painting, exactly?

We can start by restating the definition I gave above.  A landscape is a representation of an outdoors scene that evokes a sense of space and depth.  This, I think, is plain and simple enough, but just like any so-called definitive statement, it is open to interpretation.  (In the field of jurisprudence, this is why we have courts of law.)

How much space and depth qualifies?  Would we include Cezanne's flattened, near-abstract paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire?  And what about that term, "outdoors"?  Monet's paintings of the trains in the Gare Sainte-Lazare are interiors of large, covered spaces with plenty of atmosphere.  How about Asher Durand's field sketches of trees and rocks?  Should these be considered portraits or still lifes?

Here's another definition of  landscape painting I'd like to offer.  If the outdoors is the subject, it's a landscape; if the outdoors is only the setting for the subject, then it's probably something else.  Still, we might want to take a broad interpretation rather than a narrow one.  Even though Mont Sainte-Victoire and not the outdoors itself seems to be the subject of Cezanne's painting, isn't it a landscape?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you define it.

One of Asher Durand's field sketches.  Is this a landscape painting?

Oneof Monet's Gare Sainte-Lazare paintings.  Is this a landscape painting?

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