We would be lying if we denied ever imagining a stereotypical artist, sitting on a wooden chair with an apron as colorful as nature, painting in open air in front of an undeniably beautiful landscape while also flaunting a palette in his hand. To our surprise, the interest and acceptance, at large, of landscape painting as a work of art in itself was only in the second half of the eighteenth century, the period we refer to as Romanticism in the history of art. Before which much of the study of nature was reserved as a practice to be incorporated in paintings that were mostly narrative to support figural compositions.
The transition from Neo-Classicism to Romanticism is marked by changes in society that rejected the previous notions of the Enlightenment and Rationalism. The result in painting was the shift of subject to the appreciation of nature and a focus on the genius, the non-idealized hero. Whether it is the belief in the potent power of nature or that of the hero, the idea of the romantic is still felt in film, art, television and so on. The transformations in aspects of cultural and social life included a deep inquiry and aroused the curiosity of travelers and their goals of voyages. There was a prevalent idea of reconnecting with nature and finding expressions in them.
There were two prominent aesthetic theories that developed, that of the picturesque and the sublime. The Picturesque was introduced by Reverent William Gilpin in his work Observations on the River Wye (1770). The book instructed practically how the study of the nature was to be carried and the regulations of picturesque beauty stated. This time is when Constable and Turner, now much acclaimed artists of the English landscape, were actively searching for the quality of natural landscape. It was more about how the artist saw, more than the actual reproduction of it.
J.M.W Turner was described by John Ruskin (English art critic) as the one who could most “stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of nature.” He painted subjects like shipwrecks, storms, rain and fires within which he placed humans to indicate human vulnerability amidst the sublime nature of the world. He went to an extent where he claimed that he had himself “tied to the mast of the ship in order to experience the drama of the elements during a storm at the sea.” His works highlight the nature and human relationship, seen in his Rain, steam and speed where we see a great attempt in showing massive speed through a static painting.
A little support never hurts the artist and in fact gives the artist the chance and liberty to experiment and grow. Walter Ramsden Fawkes commissioned Turner to paint watercolours of Yorkshire, where he lived. Turner often returned to Ramsden’s place leading up to their friendship. His collection was passed on in the family and was sold at a series of auctions. One of the last works in private hands was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for as high as thirty million euros, a world auction record for the artist.
A rather scenic approach to English landscapes was taken by John Constable who has also credibly contributed in the area of landscape painting. The practice of plein air reappeared during Impressionism. Landscape painting is, even today, a great part of academic learning which is enjoyed, criticized, doubted but nonetheless practiced.