Glorious images of natural scenery remained a popular subject in late 19th and early 20th-century art. Driven in part by their dissatisfaction with the modern city, many artists sought out places resembling earthly paradises where they could focus on their work and feel nature firsthand. Contemporary landscape artists continue to be inspired by the majesty and mystery of nature, but the very notion of a landscape evolved greatly and broke all boundaries, becoming a subject for experimentation both in the figurative and abstract art. Exploring the psychological and spiritual places in landscapes, famous landscape artists continue to push the limits of the genre.
After the World War II, new movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dada, Pop-Art, New Realism, Minimalism, Op Art sprang up to reflect changing values and creative priorities. Yet, many creatives continued to draw from nature, yet informed by innovations brought by these modernist movements. While Richard Diebenkorn became famous for his innovative semi-abstract coastlines, Pop artists resorted to formulae and signs associated with landscape and the open road. While David Hockney presented Californian landscapes synthesized from scenes viewed successively from his car, Alex Katz presented brightly colored paintings of Maine. Still a relevant genre in the 21 century, landscape painting is taking new and unexpected turns ranging from figuration to abstraction.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at landscape painters that have marked the recent art history.
Editors’ Tip: Landscape Painting: A History by Nils Buttner
From the vast world of Western art history, a renowned art historian Nils Büttner has made a selection of paintings portraying nature, as well as dramatic scenes with people and architecture. This broad selection features celebrated works, but also less famous one. Presented chronologically, the book begins with the ancient worlds and the precursors of landscape artists in the Middle Ages and Renaissance including Leonardo da Vinci, Giovanni Bellini and Raphael. Tracing the history of the landscape painting from ancient worlds up to the present day, this richly illustrated book follows the development and evolution of the medium from Albrecht Dürer and Rubens, through Constable and Winslow Homer, to Monet, Rousseau, Georgia O’Keeffe and David Hockeny. Focusing also on individual paintings and circumstances under which they were created, Büttner presents descriptions and analysis of the work’s cultural, historical, and aesthetic context.
Featured images: Peter Doig – Cabin Essence, 1993-4, via artnews.com; Vija Celmins – Drypoint – Ocean Surface (detail), 1983, via tate.org.uk; Neil Welliver – Cedar Pond, via arktimes.com
Peter Doig - The Metamodernist
Considered one of the most renowned living figurative painters, Peter Doig creates distinctive paintings focusing on both landscapes and figure. Finding his inspiration in many different places such as movies scenes, record album covers, newspaper clipping, works of creatives such as Munch, H.C. Westermann or Klimt, but he is mostly influenced by his snowy childhood memories from Canada. He is using his own photographs as a reference, providing insight into his personal history and ethos.His paintings are characterized by unusual combinations of colors and a magic-realistic feel. He captures different scenes of contemporary existence such as forest walks, ski trips or canoe rides. His work is often described as Metamodernism, a new epoch in art oscillating between modernism and post-modernism.
Featured images: Peter Doig, via lindapittwood.org; Peter Doig – Grande Riviere, 2001-02, via peterdoig.mbam.qc.ca
Wayne Thiebaud - More Than a Pop Artist
Most famous for his pop paintings of supermarket products or cakes and pies, Wayne Thiebaud has dedicated a significant part of his career to landscapes, both natural and urban. His paintings are characterized by exaggerated colors and distinctive shadows. Depicting an image of California that existed a long time ago, the majority of his landscapes are inspired by an almost forgotten corner of the American countryside. The old state road above the Sacramento River delta gives a view of banks dotted with funky fishing stations and bait and tackle shops; houseboats are moored to creaky docks; orchards and farm fields spread out like counterpanes on either side of the silvery water. Thiebaud comes here to sketch, then returns to his studio to paint.
Featured images: Wayne Thiebaud, sacbee.com; Wayne Thiebaud – Levee Farm, 1998, via pinterest.com
Jules de Balincourt - Exploring the Frontier
Evoking notions of utopia and dystopia, Jules de Balincourt paints public and private spaces exploring the natural, economic and social landscape of the United States. Featuring both landscapes and figures, he works from a position of the outsider questioning structures of power and influence. His paintings maintain an amused attachment to the myths through which identity, both individual and nation, is constructed. Inspired by the myth of the frontier, the subject of his latest series Stumbling Pioneers is the vibrant Californian landscape. The promise of the frontier coexists with the reality of blurred borderline between man and nature in a completely colonized landscape. Through these pieces, he explores man’s uncertain relationship with his environment.
Featured images: Jules de Balincourt; Jules de Balincourt – Floating through it, 2010, via julesdebalincourt.com
David Hockney - The Versatile Artist
Perhaps the most popular and versatile British artist of the 20th century, David Hockney is most famous for portraying scenes of the sensual and uninhibited life of athletic young men, depicting swimming pools, palms, and perpetual sunshine. In his late years, he has been exploring the landscape of his native Yorkshire in different mediums such as oil, film, charcoal, and iPad. Setting up his easels in the great outdoors, or cruising quiet lanes in a van bedecked with video cameras, or sitting in his car recording his observations with a painting app on his iPhone or iPad, he would capture seasonal changes of his surroundings. Exploring new technologies, he has also used an iPad as his canvas.
Featured images: David Hockney, via bbc.co.uk; David Hockney – The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, 2011, via harpersbazaar.com
Vija Celmins - Painting the Empty Landscape
An important Latvian-American artist, Vija Celmins is most famous for photo-realistic paintings and drawings of natural environments and phenomena such as the ocean, spider webs, star fields, deserts, and rocks. Her landscapes represent nature at its most impersonal and neutral, emptied of all romantic cliché. These landscapes are imbued with a sense of strangeness, latent danger and alienation through her use of dark gray tones and empty backgrounds. Lacking a point of reference, horizon, and even depth of field, Celmins’ images are rendered with an obsessive attention to detail and are characterized by a remarkable texture. She mostly works from clippings and found photographs, but she also likes to paint from a long pier extending into the ocean on the Venice Beach.
Featured images: Vija Celmins, via pinterest.com; Vija Celmins – Desert, 1975, via tate.org.uk
Neil Welliver - Capturing the Mystery of the Maine
Neil Welliver was an American-born artist famous for his large-scale landscape paintings inspired by the deep woods near his home in Maine. Coming of age as an artist at the time as nonrepresentation styles of painting such as Abstract Expressionism, Color Field, and Minimalism were accorded the highest critical prestige, he continued to paint representational images incorporating formal innovations that these movements introduced. Completely eliminating figure from his work, he would paint outdoor studies of greens, grass, snow, rocks and streams encountered in places around his home and then translate the small paintings onto large canvases in the studio. Using empathic, generously paint-loaded brushstrokes and filling the picture with the myriad of details, his pieces were imbued with representational lucidity and abstract texture.
Featured image: Neil Welliver – Prospect Stream, 1974, via mmoca.org
Russell Chatham - Capturing Quiet Landscapes
Essentially a self-taught artist, Russel Chatham is most famous for capturing magnificent viewscapes. His work rejects the narrative tendency of much western art, presenting the landscape that stands in the intimate relationship towards the human figure even in the absence of it. He stands as one of the world’s foremost practitioners of lithography, but he also creates oil paintings. His lithographs have somewhere between 30 and 40 layers of color, all drawn on the printing plate. These soft landscapes are characterized by subtle shadings and quiet colors. „I give an honest response to landscapes“, he once stated. „I have it pass through me. I deliver a varsion that is still true – but it’s mine“.
Featured images: Russel Chatham, via vimeo.com; Russell Chatham – Moonrise Over the Roaring Fork River, via sapergalleries.com
Gerhard Richter - The Play Between Realism and Abstraction
A German painter who explored the play between realism and abstraction, Gerhard Richter has a versatile oeuvre, ranging from oils on canvas, works on paper, overpainted photographs and Atlas, his collection of photographs, and glass pieces. He employed his painting as a means of exploring the way images that appear to capture truth turn out to be far from it. No other motif has fascinated him as much or kept him so occupied over the years as the landscape. These depictions were diverse, from black-and-white landscapes based on images from magazines and amateur photos and views of mountains and parks painted in thick impasto to softly hued, transparent, illusionist lake scenes. He manages to capture reality in a painterly way, such that landscape and abstraction manifest as related concepts.
Featured images: Gerhard Richter, via wwwold.fsrr.org; Gerhard Richter – Before the Horizon, via edmccaskey.wordpress.com
Alan Bray - The Environmental Storyteller
Another American artist inspired by the majesty and mystery of the Maine, Alan Bray creates mystical paintings that quietly celebrate the phenomena and intricacy of nature in the ordinary. He is famous for his style of magical realism that is a combination of fine and folk art. Regarded as an environmental storyteller, he creates small Maine landscapes that are as much an allusion as illusion, referring to natural and human history in oblique ways. His works are posed exactly in the midpoint between the figurative and the abstract, with the regular shapes for trees or logs and ponds organized with the precision of a mathematical proposition. Yet, a few details supplied by the artist’s sharp observation of nature link these shapes to the reality of the tangible world.
Featured images: Alan Bray – Winter’s False Start, 2013, via garveysimonartaccess.com; Alan Bray – Footbridge, 2009, via artslant.com
Joakim Allgulander - Experimenting With Semi-Abstract Landscapes
One of Sweden’s most renowned artists, the practice of Joakim Allgulander is broad in both subject and media. Despite this curiosity for exploration of different media and techniques, the existential lyricism and poetic content is a constant in his work. As an investigative project within the field of landscape painting, his latest works focus on the potential for abstraction and fluidity of colors, interpreting the genre with a more existential practice. This body of work is a deeply personal study of the landscapes that surrounded him while growing up in rural Sweden. Extracted from photographs and memories, he portrays snowy spruce trees in a semi-abstract ways as fragments. Allgulander’s paintings do not merely mirror reality but become sculptures on the flat surface with the use of colors and the texture of the paint.