The Classic Landscape

We have seen in the previous chapters how Raphael built up composition from a simple geometric plan, on the principles of repetition and contrast, rhythmically balanced. Other Italian artists worked upon the same lines, and with such skill and grandeur of invention that the Italian pictures, especially of the Sixteenth Century, are still considered the finest examples of this sort of composition. It is distinguished by being what we may call ” formal,” or ” conventional.”

The figures are arranged, that is to say, not as you would be likely to see them in actual life, but according to a rule or formula or convention. The idea has been not to represent a real scene, but to display the figures and their surroundings in such a way as to produce an effect of beauty; sometimes a simple one, more often one of great impressiveness or magnificent splendor. The figures and other objects have been so arranged and so drawn as to furnish an orderly pattern of beauty and dignity. The subjects of the pictures might be taken from the Bible story or from the legends of ancient Greece, or be simply invented to set forth the pride that the people took in their cities—the pomp and glory of Venice, for example. But, no matter what the subject might be, the aim of the artist was first and foremost to paint a thing of beauty. And in this search for beauty he soon discovered how much depended upon the surroundings of his figures and the objects that he introduced.

When he desired the simpler kind of beauty he set his figures in lovely landscape scenery with hills and trees and winding streams ; when he was bent on grander effects, he added architectural settings. For the architects of that day were erecting noble buildings with columns and arches, vaulted roofs and domes; partly in imitation of the remains of Roman architecture, but also designed in a fresh spirit of invention to fit the new purposes for which the buildings were required. Thus arose that vast temple of the Roman Church, St. Peter’s. It is what is called a classic building; because its style is in many respects like that of the old classic Roman temples, which in their turn had represented a new use of the still older classic style of Greek architecture.

The painters, then, inspired by the work of the architects, discovered how much dignity they could give to their own compositions by introducing architectural features. Sometimes they would introduce columns, or a flight of steps or a balustrade, some-times a whole building; or represent the figures grouped in a street or square, surrounded by buildings, or often inside a building, standing under a vaulted ceiling. These are only a few of the architectural features, so freely used by the Italian painters. Let us study their value to the composition.

Some people who live in country homes are fond of flowers. They grow cluster-roses, honeysuckle, wistaria and other long-armed climbing plants over their verandahs. If they are fond of gardening and not satisfied merely with a lawn and a few shrubs, they will erect arches and trellis-work on which vines may cling and cluster. In the first place, they know that these slender, straggling plants will thrive better, if they have some support; they will not be so torn by the buffets of the wind, and their limbs and leaves and flowers will get more sunshine. Secondly, they will show to better advantage, because of the contrast of their winding, wreathing forms and irregular masses with the firm, strong, simple lines of the verandah or trellis-work. United they form a prettier composition, than would the vines and cluster-roses, if huddling in an unsupported tangle.

The principle is the same in the composition of a picture, where the vines are represented by the action of the figures. To their irregular masses of drapery and undulating lines of limbs the architecture presents at once the contrast and support of decided lines and clearly defined masses. And since the classic style of architecture, which was used, is so noble, it added nobility to the composition. Even the penny photographs of the Italian pictures will prove to you that this is so. Study them and find this out for yourselves.

Now, the example of the Italians, in this respect, was followed by other nations, especially the French. The latter continue to this clay the painting of beautiful pictures in which the figures are combined with landscape and architecture. And our own American artists are doing the same thing, as you can see if you have a chance of visiting the Library of Congress, at Washington, or any other of the public buildings throughout this country, in which the walls have been decorated with mural paintings.’

So far we have been speaking of the use of architecture to support the figures. In time, however, artists found a new use for it. They employed it to support the landscape; which brings us to a talk about what is called the ” Classic Landscape.”

Nowadays, when so many artists paint nothing else but landscape pictures, it may seem strange that the Italians of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries used landscape only as a support for the figures. It was not because they were blind to the beautiful scenery of their own country, for, when they did introduce it into their pictures, they represented it in a very lovely way. But always as a back-ground to the figures, which you are made to feel are the principal features of the picture. The reason is that the public for whom they painted demanded figure subjects. The Church required pictures that would bring home to the hearts of the people who could not read the beauty of the Bible Story; rich men and women wished to decorate their palaces with scenes from the old Greek legends ; while cities adorned their public buildings with allegorical subjects in which the pride they took in their own municipal life was set forth in figures, personifying the character of its greatness. More-over, those were stirring times in which the rivalry between the cities and between the noble families led to constant wars and plottings. Men, beginning as nobodies, rose rapidly to power. Not, as they do to-day in our country, by using their brains and energy in the peaceful pursuits of industry and trade and learning; but through brute force, guided by brains that schemed to win by fraud and violence. So it was man that, as we say, cut the chief figure in these times; man’s power and woman’s beauty. Mankind was so interested in itself that it spared little thought for the beauty of nature. It is true that architects built noble houses on sites commanding beautiful views and laid out the gardens with fountains, trees and flowers. Even this however, was for the glorification of some man or woman. But the love of nature which leads artists to paint landscapes and the public to value such pictures is a different thing. In the love of nature man forgets himself ; he is absorbed in the beauty of the natural world outside himself ; he is fond of nature for its own sake.

It was not until the Seventeenth Century that artists began to study and paint the landscape in this spirit. When they did so, the landscape took the first place in their pictures, and the figures, if any were introduced, became the unimportant features, kept small and put in merely to enliven the scene. By this time landscape painting, as a subject distinct in itself, branched out into two directions—the naturalistic and the formal. The naturalistic was practised by the Dutch artists, who painted the out of door life and appearance of Holland so truthfully, that to-day when we look at their pictures we can see the meadows and streams, the mills and the farms, exactly as they were three hundred years ago. But the subject of natural landscape we will study later on.

The other kind of landscape I have called formal because, instead of being drawn directly from nature, it was made up, like the Italian figure pictures, according to a rule or formula or convention. ‘Just as in those pictures the figures were represented as grander and more beautiful than people usually are in real life, and were arranged for the purpose of a handsome composition in attitudes that people do not usually assume, so with the formal landscapes. The artists tried to make them more grand and imposing than ordinary nature, and composed them according to an artificial plan. They did not in their picture represent any real scene in nature, but built up a number of natural details into a composition, constructed on a geometric plan. And especially they introduced details of classic architecture ; so that these formal designs are often called classic landscapes.

If you turn to the illustration you will see at once that the artist has not represented the natural landscape. The very title, Dido Building Carthage, shows the classic influence. The subject is taken from Virgil’s Eneid, Book I, line 420. Turner, the great English artist, who in 1815 painted this picture, had never seen Carthage; nor had he ever seen any spot on earth like the one rep-resented here. What he had seen was the work of Claude Lorrain, a French artist of the Seventeenth Century, who lived in Italy and invented this kind of landscape. Turner himself preferred to paint the natural landscape; but, since the people of his own day admired the classic landscape of Claude and his followers, he wished to prove that he also could paint like Claude, if he chose ; and as well as the French artist. Therefore, when he died, he left this picture and another classic landscape, The Sun rising in a Mist to the National Gallery, on condition that they should be hung alongside of two by Claude Lorrain. So, while studying this picture we are really studying the principles on which Claude built up the classic landscape, and on which his followers worked for nearly two hundred years, until the love of nature won out and the naturalistic landscape took its place.

The geometric plan of this picture is very simple. You can discover it by joining the upper and lower opposite corners by two diagonal lines that cut each other in the center. This produces four triangles; of which the top is given to the sky, the bottom to the water, and the two sides to the land and buildings and trees. Sky and water occupy more space than the other two parts; but since the latter are filled with details of bold design, they attract extra attention, so that the balance between the full and empty spaces is kept true.

The balance is a harmonious one. You will perhaps realise better what this means if you think for a moment of a balance that is not harmonious; for instance of a pair of hanging scales, in one pan of which there is a flat round one pound weight, exactly balancing a pound of candy in the other pan. We should not call this a harmonious balance. If we examine why it is not, it will help us to understand the meaning of harmony in composition. The reason is that there is no relation between the box of candy and the one pound weight, except that each weighs the same. On the other hand, in the picture every detail has some relation to the other details, and all are related to the whole. The whole, in fact, is a woven mass of contrasts and repetitions, in exact relation; very much as a composition of music is made up of exactly related contrasts and repetitions of sound notes. Alter one of these and there will be a discord, unless some other notes are altered to restore the harmony. Similarly if the artist had altered the shape of one of the details in his picture, or its color, or its lightness or darkness, there would have been a discord in the effect of his picture; it would no longer present the appearance of perfect oneness. He would have to alter some other parts to restore the harmony.

In studying the picture to try and discover how the effect of harmony is produced we find ourselves studying the contrasts and repetitions of which it is composed. And, first the contrasts. One big one is the contrast of the architecture with everything else in the picture—the contrast of these quiet stately masses, which seem so firm and strong, compared with the shimmering surface of the water and the tremulous mistiness of the sky; the contrast also of their decided lines with the irregular spotting of the figures, and with the irregular masses of the trees and foliage. The big tree, although it is motionless in the quiet air, seems as if a breeze would stir it; the water has ripples of motion; some of the figures appear to be moving, while others are only still for the moment, and the sky—it is palpitating with the actual stir of the atmosphere, as the upper air gradually cools and draws up the warmer air from below, and this warmer air cools into mistiness. But the buildings stand immovable and solid. While all around them either moves or could move, they seem to suggest the force and permanence of what does not change. Or perhaps we may feel that grand as the buildings are, stately and magnificent, yet the sky is lovelier, for the buildings are limited to their one size and shape, while the sky seems a part of that which has no limits or boundaries. It draws off our imagination into the mystery of distance and of the unknown. So the impressions which. the contrast of the architecture arouses are not only such as the eye can see, but such also as the imagination can feel. This, no doubt, is one of the secrets of the pleasure which so many people have found and still find in classic landscapes.

And now for another series of contrasts : those sup-plied by the lights and darks. In the original picture these contrasts would depend partly on the color of the various objects; but here, in the black and white reproduction, we may think of the pattern simply as one of very dark spots and very light ones, threaded together by others of varying depths of greyness. Again, what an important part the sky plays ! It is a flood of light, against which every-thing forms a silhouette, more or less dark, relieved by spots and streaks of light. The water, but for the pathway of reflection, is shrouded in shadow. Shadow, too, is wrapping itself round the tall building on the left, and slumbers drowsily among the trees on the opposite hill slopes. The artist, you will notice, has varied the distribution of shadows. On the left the gradation from very dark to very light is continuous. It is as if the first building struck a loud strong note, and the sound gradually diminished toward the distance. On the right, how-ever, the foreground is lighter, and the dark gradually increases, swelling up, as they say in music, in a crescendo effect and then passing in a diminuendo far off into the distance. In fact, on both sides of the picture the arrangement of dark and light is rhythmical. I have only touched upon the broad general plan of contrasted darks and lights, and must leave you to study for yourselves the intricate and subtle effects with which the picture abounds ; for example, the fine threads and little dots of light and dark that form a tangle on the left bank; or, on the right, the mass of leafage in half shadow against which the trunk of the tree shows very dark. You know the old proverb about leading a horse to the water. I can draw your attention to these things, but I can not make you feel their beauty. I think, however, I can promise you, that, if you are sufficiently interested in what we are talking about to really study this picture, to explore carefully the lighter parts and peer into the shadows to see what lurks within them, its beauty will make itself known to you.

As I myself am examining a black and white reproduction of this picture, that lies before me while I write these lines, there is music coming from the next room. It has stopped, and I wish it would begin again; for music seems to fit in with the impressions that this picture stirs in my imagination. Nor is this merely a fanciful idea. Music is one art and painting is another. They are different, it is true, but yet are sisters with much in common. And why not? For they come from the same parents the hand and the mind of man. And through the harmony of the light and dark of which this picture is composed there floats, it seems to me, the fancy of a melody. I think it comes from out the endless distance of that sky; gently floating toward us, and crooning over the objects in the fore-ground, as a mother murmurs a lullaby over her baby while it falls asleep. But it is not altogether crooning, for see that tree’s dark, round mass of tone ! How it thumps itself into our notice, while its force spreads up the hill, and then leaps across the water, and stirs with a different kind of energy in the dark building on the left. There is nothing of the feebleness and the helplessness of a baby in this picture. It suggests rather, big and mighty effort, growing toward the time of rest. It is not the music of a lullaby I seem to hear, but the evening hymn of sturdy workers as they cease for a little from their toil.