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By John A. Barry

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About this blog: I am the creator of trAction Painting, a process/performance genre in which paint is applied to large surfaces with bicycles, roller skates, and other wheeled conveyances. I have produced works on canvas, plywood, particle board, ...  (More)

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Local Landscapes

Uploaded: Apr 1, 2011
Landscape painting has historically ranked low in the genre hierarchy in the post-Renaissance Western world (landscape painting was already well established in China by the fourth century CE, however). It outranked only still life in the hierarchy, superseded by history painting, portrait, and genre painting (scenes from everyday life). These rankings were established in 1669 by Andre Felibien, secretary to the French Academy.

Those in the art world--patrons, teachers, and artists--did not take landscape painting seriously, placing greater value on historical works, portraits, and genre pictures. Renaissance (and later Neoclassical and academic schools) followed the lead of Greek art in focusing on figure drawing and figure painting of the human body, especially nudes. In comparison, landscape was insignificant. Until the early/mid-16th century, landscapes were included in painting purely as a backdrop for human activity.

More about the development and evolution of the genre can be found at visual-arts-cork.com/genres/landscape-painting.htm, where I retrieved most of the above information, among many other sources on the Web.

The word, which derives from Middle Dutch "landscap," is a combination of "land" and "-ship, condition." According to the Online Etymology Dictionary: "-ship Old English -sciepe, Anglian –scip, "state, condition of being; from Proto-Germanic -skapaz (cf. Old Norse. -skapr, Old Frisian -skip, Dutch. -schap, German -schaft), from base skap, "to create, ordain, appoint," from Proto-Indo-European base *(s)kep- (see shape [v.).

etymonline.com notes that the word was originally introduced as a painters' term. Its meaning of "tract of land with its distinguishing characteristics" dates from 1886. The verb meaning "to lay out lawns, gardens, etc., plant trees for the sake of beautification" was first recorded in 1927 and derives from the noun, as is often the case with verbs, as "to gesso."

The noun "landscape" originally meant a patch of cultivated ground and, later, an image. It was incorporated into English at the start of the 17th century as a term for works of art; it wasn't used to describe real vistas before 1725, per Wikipedia.

So much for the brief history and lengthy etymology of landscape.

arts-cork.com concludes that how landscape will develop in this century remains unclear, inquiring speculatively: "Will the demands and disciplines of academic art stimulate a return to traditional, naturalistic canvases, or will the fashion for abstract and discursive art--involving figures and actions, as well as modern delivery methods like video--continue to dominate? One wonders what type of landscapes Turner and Monet would be painting, if they were alive today."

The post-Renaissance art world may not have taken landscape painting seriously or placed it high on the genres spectrum, but a look at local galleries demonstrates that--from a purely quantitative perspective--it's number 1. By far, landscapes outnumber any other type of art locally, although the percentage varies from gallery to gallery, with naturalistic canvases predominating and a particular promontory in the local geography appearing with great frequency.


John A. Barry is a writer and avocational artist. To share anything art-related, call him at 314-9528 or email jobarry@pacbell.net

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