The Naturalistic Landscape

We come now to the other arm of the Y, about which we spoke in a previous chapter. Landscape had been used as a background to the figures, until in the Seventeenth Century some artists began to make it the chief subject of their pictures. But no sooner was landscape painting practised as a separate art than it branched into two directions. We followed one of these and saw how Claude Lorrain invented the formal, or classic landscape; taking bits of nature, some from one place, some from another, and building them up into an artificial composition, which he made more grand by the addition of classic architecture. It was not unlike the way in which a handsome house is built; the materials,—stone, wood, marble, and so on—are brought together from various places, hewed to certain shapes designed by the architect, and then put together according to the rule or formula of building. The main difference is that, though the classic landscape does not represent any actual spot in nature, it still bears a resemblance to nature. But it is nature worked over by the fancy of man, and improved according to his own idea of what is beautiful. The artist did not paint nature because he loved it as it but because it furnished him with material for making a handsome picture. And this picture-making use of landscape continued to be popular with artists and the public well on into the Nineteenth Century.

Meanwhile the other branch of landscape painting had been started in the Seventeenth Century by the Dutchmen. They, as we have seen, were interested above everything in themselves, their own lives and surroundings. This was the state of mind of the whole people, and the artists gave expression to it in their pictures. They too, were picture-makers, who by their skill of painting and their love of beauty made their pictures beautiful works of art. But the subjects that they represented were seldom imaginary ones. They painted what they actually saw; and with so much truth that their art has been called an art of portraiture. They made portraits of people, portraits of the outdoor and in-door life, and portraits of their towns and harbors, and of the country that surrounded them. So, by comparison with the formal or classic landscape, we may call their landscapes naturalistic, for they rep-resented nature as it actually appeared to their eyes.

But their art died with them. As soon as Holland had secured her independence, her artists began to travel to foreign countries, especially to Italy. There they set themselves to imitate the great Italians, and so far as landscape was concerned, joined in the popular taste for the classic kind. It was not until a hundred years later, namely at the end of the Eighteenth Century, that an English artist, Con-stable, revived the naturalistic style of landscape. He was a miller’s son, whose boyhood had been spent amid the simple loveliness of nature. Later he went to London and studied painting; but while he worked in the big city, his heart was in the country, and he suddenly made up his mind to go back to the old scenes, and paint what he knew and loved. He had seen some of the landscapes of the old Dutch-men, and resolved that he would do what they had done. In his own words, he would be a ” natural painter.”

It was not long before the example of Constable led some of the younger French artists to study the old Dutch pictures in the Louvre. They were dissatisfied with the methods of painting upheld by the older artists. It seemed to them a waste of time to set up a model in a studio, and then, instead of drawing it as they saw it, to correct it according to some standard of perfection. Nor did they find any interest in putting a number of such figures into artificial groups, in order to build up some grand composition, supposed to represent some classical subject or story of the old time. They were full of interest in the life of their own time, which was the period following the Revolution, when France felt young again and vigorous, and the young artists and poets and fiction-writers were eager to express in their work their joy in the reality of life. When life was so real and so full of promise, why should they look back to the times of the great Italians and occupy themselves with the artificial and make-believe ?

Among these younger men was one, Theodore Rousseau. He was not only independent in character and determined to see things with his own eyes and to represent them as he saw them and felt them, but he had a great love of nature. This led him away from the city into the country; where he studied the skies and the trees, and all the objects of the landscape with an ever increasing love and knowledge, until he came to know nature, as few have done, and to feel toward it, as a man feels to-ward that which he loves best in all the world. His favorite spot in nature was that which surrounds the Palace of Fontainebleau, an ancient residence some thirty miles from Paris, of the kings of France. It is a rolling tract of ground, broken up with rocky glens and thick with forest trees, especially the oak. On the outskirts of this enchanting garden of wildness, in the little village of Barbizon, Rousseau made his home, and around him gathered other artists, fascinated by the beauty of nature. Among them was the Jean Francois Millet whose picture, The Sower, we have already studied. He for the most part painted the peasants, working in the fields or tending their flocks; but the others, among them Dupre, Corot, and Diaz, painted the landscape, while Troyon introduced cows into his pictures and Jacque, sheep. With all of them the motive was to represent nature as they saw and felt it. They are known as the Fontainebleau-Barbizon group of artists, and their example has had very great influence on modern art. I shall speak of it presently; meanwhile will continue the story of naturalistic landscape.

It is a very interesting fact that while these French artists were going straight to nature for their subjects and inspiration, some American artists, knowing nothing of the Frenchmen, were doing the same thing. A similar love of nature and longing to paint it as they saw and felt it drew them from the city to the beautiful spots that border on the Hudson River. Their leader was Thomas Cole, who made his headquarters among the hills and valleys, the waterfalls and luxuriant vegetation of the romantic Catskills. Other names are those of Thomas Doughty, Asher B. Durand, John F. Kensett. Sometimes they painted the grander aspects of the scenery; the broad Hudson sweeping past its head-lands, or the lakes with their girdle of mountains ; but quite as often the simpler loveliness of smiling meadows and cosy farms. But always with the sincere wish to represent, as faithfully as they could, the natural beauty that they loved.

Gradually, however, as the country expanded Westward and the pioneer spirit of the nation was aroused, American artists began to attempt bigger subjects. Church, Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran attacked the colossal wonders of the Yellowstone and the Rockies. It was no longer the beauty of nature that inspired them, so much as its marvelousness and immensity. As many people believe, they tried to do something that is beyond the power of painting to express. For on the comparatively tiny space of their canvasses they did succeed in expressing some of the appearances of nature’s grandeur, but they hardly made you feel it. I believe myself it is impossible that they should; for an artist can only make you feel in his picture something of what he himself has felt; and he must have thoroughly mastered his own feeling before he can express it. But in the presence of the stupendous works of nature, as far as my experience goes, the feeling masters ourselves. Amid the vastness of the height and depth and breadth and the grandeur and glory and marvel of it all, our spirit is swept out of us. We see the mighty volume of water coming over Niagara and hear the roar of its might; but not as we gaze into the face of a friend and listen to the voice that we have learned to know and love so well. In the one case our feeling is all brought to a center of attraction, in the other it is caught away and carried beyond our comprehension. We can only lose ourselves in wonder.

Well, artists discovered the truth of this. Con-stable and Rousseau lead the way, and now it is the usual habit of the landscape artists to study nature as one studies the face and form, the expression and action of a friend. One cannot know a number of friends as intimately as one or two. So they have confined their pictures to the few and simple aspects of nature; one little fragment at a time, studied with loving intimacy and represented with the faithfulness of sincere and thorough knowledge. In doing so, they have learned like Johannes Vermeer and other Dutch artists of the Seventeenth Century, that much of the beauty and almost all the expression on the face of nature are due to the effects of natural light. Light has become the special study of the modern painters of the naturalistic landscape. And they have carried it further than the other artists did. Helped by the scientific men, who have examined into the color of light, the modern artist has found out how to represent a great variety of the effects of light: cool or warm light, the light at a particular hour of the day, at a particular season of the year, and in a particular kind of weather. In fact, the light that he represents in his pictures is a faithful rendering of some one of the countless conditions of natural light.

You remember how the light in Vermeer’s picture drew all the parts of the composition into a harmonious whole and gave it rhythm. So too, in. these modern naturalistic landscapes the artist has ceased to depend upon line and form in making the composition. The latter is now rather an arrangement of masses of lighted color. We will talk more about this when we come to color; for the present, it is enough to remember that we must not expect to find in modern naturalistic landscapes the same handsome patterns of composition that we find in the classical. The modern have less dignity, but a more intimate charm. We do not stand apart from the scene and admire it; we rather enter in to it and enjoy it. It is something with which we are familiar in nature, but we are made to feel a greater beauty in it through the personal feeling that the artist has put into his work. The French have a term for this kind of landscape, which well expresses the artist’s motive and the feelings which his picture inspires in us. They call it the ” pay-sage intime.” Literally translated this means ” intimate landscape “; but it may be rendered more freely a landscape in which we recognise how intimately the artist has studied his subject.

I have given you a sketch of the growth of naturalistic landscape in the Seventeenth Century up to our own day, when this branch of painting has become fully as important as that of figure subjects. Now let me briefly describe the change that has taken place in the motive of the landscape painter.

The motive, or aim of the early Dutchmen was to make their pictures resemble as much as possible the actual landscape. They were, as I have said, ” portraits ” of the natural surroundings. In their desire that the portraits should be lifelike these artists painted in as many of the details as they could. Moreover their point of view was objective. By “point of view ” I mean the way in which they looked at the landscape; and I call it ” objective,” because they looked at it simply as an object in front of them to be painted as nearly as possible lifelike. This is the usual point of view of the modern photographer. You go to him to have your portrait taken. He poses you as an object in front of his camera. His aim is to make a portrait that will be like you, and will also please you because it is a good-looking picture. He will do the same for the next person that comes to him, and for the next, and so on. All of them are simply objects to be photographed. He has no personal feeling toward any of them; his point of view is objective.

But, suppose he makes a portrait of his own child. He will wish it to be more than a likeness that any one would recognise. He wants it to be a reminder in after years, when she is grown up and changed, of how she used to look as a little one, in moments when to her mother and himself she seemed more than ever a darling. To him, you see, she is not merely an object to be photographed ; his point of view towards his own child is not objective; on the contrary it is influenced by his personal love for her; the picture is to be a likeness plus something more—a reflection of his own feeling. This personal kind of point of view is called ” subjective,” the opposite to objective. Perhaps you will understand the difference between the two more clearly by the following sentence : ” The photographer photographs Mrs. X.” The photographer is the subject of the verb, photographs, ” Mrs. X.” is the object. In this case the object is of more importance than the subject because it is Mrs. X. who pays the money and has to be considered. But change the words in this way—” The father photo-graphs his little one.” Now, so far as the taking of the photograph is concerned, the father is the more important. He is the subject of the verb, the one who is going to do something and do it his own way, so as to represent something which he, the subject, has in his mind. His point of view is entirely his own—the subjective. Observe how this will affect the way in which he takes the photograph.

The little one has just come in, we will say, from a romp in the meadow. Her hair is tumbled and the light plays through the silky strands ; there is a sparkle of sunshine in her eyes; her lips are parted in a sunny smile as she stretches out to her father a podgy hand, tightly clasping a bunch of daisies. “Little love” he thinks to himself, “what a picture ! ” He seizes his camera, and tells her to stand still a minute. What is it, do you think that he is going to try and catch? I need hardly say it is the radiance in her face. Perhaps her podgy hand too; but first and chiefly that expression of happiness and love; for it is an echo, as it were, of the happiness and love that he feels in his own heart toward her. If he succeed, the picture will be as much an expression of his own subjective feeling toward the child, as of the child herself.

If you see what I mean you can now begin to understand how Constable, and, even more, Rousseau and the other Fontainebleau-Barbizon artists looked at nature. No longer an objective point of view, like the old Dutchmen’s, it was a subjective one. To them nature was not merely an object of which to make a portrait. It was something they Ioved, and, because they loved it, they painted it, and in such a way that their pictures embodied the feeling which they had for nature. They are full of the artist’s personal feeling, or as it is sometimes called, sentiment. A landscape of Rousseau’s sets our imagination working. It may represent an oak tree and a rocky boulder, half hidden in ferns and vines, some little spot in the forest of Fontainebleau. As we look at it we become more and more conscious of the strength and vigor of the tree ; the firmness of its huge trunk, the mighty muscles of its brawny arms, the grip which it has upon the ground, and our imagination may begin thinking of the roots hidden below the ground. While the branches spread out to the sunshine and the air, the unseen roots reach out and grip the soil and grapple with the rocks, anchoring firmly the tree against the storms of weather and time. And perhaps we begin to feel, as Rousseau himself did, that the oak is a symbol of the might of nature; and how she silently works on regardless of the changes that happen in the lot of comparatively short-lived men. Or we look at one of Corot’s pictures of the twilight, in which the trees seem to have sunk asleep in blurs of shade against the pale, faint light that is fading from the sky; and the hush and tenderness of the daily miracle of nature’s rest steals over our spirits. It is as if we were listening to the pensive melody of some sweet lyrical poem, very gently and reverently read; such a one, perhaps, as Longfellow’s ” Hymn to the Night.” On the other hand, to receive an impression like that of Rousseau’s picture, we must choose a poem that tells, not of rest, but of the grandeur of human effort, and must read it in a strong voice and confidently, as if we. were sure that to be strong and faithful to the end was a grand thing.

Indeed, so many landscapes, not only by the Fontainebleau-Barbizon artists, but also by modern men who are following in their footsteps, are full of the suggestion of poetry, and we speak of them as poetic landscapes. This does not mean that they illustrate any particular poem, but that they affect one’s imagination in somewhat the same way as poetry does. The reason is that such artists have the spirit of poets. For nature arouses in them deep emotions, and their pictures, like the poet’s verses, not only describe the beauty of nature, but express the sentiment, or feeling, of their own souls.

On the other hand, you must not expect to find this suggestion of poetry in all modern naturalistic landscape. There are still artists whose point of view, like that of the old Dutchmen, is objective. They are content to paint the beauty of nature simply as it shows itself to their eyes. Nor need we argue as to which is the better way, this, or the subjective point of view. We may prefer the one or the other; though, perhaps, it is better for us to keep our minds open to the beauties of both.