The development of nature paintings follows two different schools: Chinese landscape painting and Western art. The famous nature paintings fall into various categories, from the highly realistic nature depictions, detailed watercolor illustrations of various animal species and new discoveries of the world, to stunning examples of abstract landscape paintings, and the most celebrated non-figurative paintings of the 20th-century.
A pure fascination for artists, nature is a great setting onto which inner feelings and progressive ideas of the new aesthetic language and trends can be imprinted. In the past, artists would often recreate nature in their studios and these models helped them to create some of the greatest imagery in art history. With the birth of avant-garde movement Impressionism, artists took to the countryside and began painting en-plain air. Exploring the shifting light and investigating the perception of color, nature was a starting point for major achievements which forever changed the face of art. For many, Claude Monet’s painting, especially his series investigating light on the Rouen Cathedral, announced abstraction in art. The pioneer abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky used nature as a starting point for his paintings, which focused on the notion of the spiritual and suggestive in art. The landscape paintings today showcase the importance of painting in open air which continues to fascinate landscape artists.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh – Wheat Field with Cypresses. Image via wikimedia.org; Claude Monet – Haystacks. Image via widewalls.ch; Henri Rousseau – The Dream. Image via wikipedia.org
The famous French artist Claude Monet was one of the most celebrated Impressionists whose nature paintings are well known in the history of art. Investigating the shifting nature of light and the perception of pure color, his paintings defined the Impressionistic style. His famous Water Lilies series, along with his paintings Haystacks and Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (inspired by Manet's masterpiece), showcase the new technique – en plein air. Taking his easel outside, Claude Monet was one of many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists who promoted the direct contact to nature and used it to develop new trends in painting.
Featured image: Claude Monet – Water Lilies. Image via wikimedia.com
The wild and expressive paintings of the Dutch Post-Impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh began to achieve widespread popularity only after the artist’s death. His nature paintings are not only one of the most expressive works but are images which, for many, act like the footprints of the inner workings and the turmoil of the author’s soul. His canvases ooze in swirling, thick and vibrant color, evident in one of his most famous (and beloved) paintings The Starry Night. Other famous nature paintings produced by the artist are Wheatfield Under Clouded Sky and Daubigny's Garden, both of which he painted in the last weeks of his life.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh – The Starry Night. Image via wikimedia.com
The self-taught American artist Winslow Homer initially worked as a commercial illustrator. Fascinated with nature, he began investigating the traditional oil medium and soon became famous for his landscape and marine subjects produced during his working vacations. His nature painting Gloucester Harbor showcases the beauty of color, the shifting light, and the serene atmosphere of the vacation at the sea. Other nature-inspired paintings by the artist include the Sunlight on the Coast, part of the collection of the Ohio Toledo Museum of Art, Song of the Lark, and Cloud Shadows.
Featured image: Winslow Homer – Gloucester Harbour. Image via wikiart.com
The American painter Thomas Cole is credited to be the founder of the Hudson River School. The school was the base of the 19th-century movement created by a number of landscape artists whose aesthetic vision was influenced by Romanticism. This traditional period promoted the wild and expressive qualities that nature held to represent the setting for deeper philosophical themes. Cole was famous for his beautiful and realistic paintings of America’s rugged wilderness, as displayed in his Distant View of the Niagara Falls, Home in the Woods, and The Oxbow. For many his paintings are a form of allegorical art as they often hide themes which extend from the mere nature depictions.
Featured image: Cole Thomas – The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northampton). Image via wikimedia.org
The American landscape painter Martin Johnson Heade spent much of his time traveling the tropics where he was inspired to paint many images with flowers and birds. Exploring the world around him, he began to specialize in depictions of salt marshes in the New England Costal area. His painting Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes not only reflects his interest in this subject matter, but also displays the detailed analysis of the landscape. His other famous nature paintings include Rocks in New England, Rhode Island Landscape, and Sunrise in Nicaragua.
Featured image: Martin Johnson Heade – Sunlight and Shadow, The Newbury Marshes. Image via wikimedia.org
The German-American painter Albert Bierstadt was associated with the Hudson River School movement, inspired by the American West. The beauty of the outdoors and its wildlife were often the subject matter of his famous nature paintings. Among his celebrated nature paintings, which many associate also with the Rocky Mountain School Movement, is his painting Looking Down Yosemite Valley.
Featured image: Albert Bierstadt – Looking Down Yosemite Valley. Image via artsbma.org
Paul Cezanne was a French artist and a prominent figure of the Post-Impressionist movement. Celebrated as one of the revolutionary avant-garde artists of the 20th-century, Cezanne broke from the traditional rule of perspective in art and focused his work on the investigation of both form and color. His concern for the independent quality of the objects in his works created the flattening of the surface and use of geometric shapes which later inspired the Cubist movement. His famous nature painting Road Near Mont Sainte-Victoire showcases his interest to express nature and its elements through the use of basic geometric shapes and flat areas of vibrant color.
Featured image: Paul Cezanne – Road Near Mont Sainte Victorie. Image via wikiart.org
The French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau famously claimed that he had ‘no teacher other than nature’. As a self-taught artist, many define his work to follow the trend of naïve art and celebrated his style and depiction of nature and of the human figure. Famous for his depictions of the jungle, his nature painting The Flamingos and the celebrated work The Dream showcase the juxtaposition of the real and imaginary.
Featured image: Henri Rousseau – The Flamingos. Image via allpaintings.org
The artist Georgia O'Keeffe is known as the mother of American modernism. Closely connected to the innovative European artists of the 20th-century, her goal was to make the natural world abstract in order to make it more aesthetically appealing. She specialized in producing large-scale paintings of flowers. Spending a great deal of time in New Mexico, where she purchased a ranch, her paintings were celebrated as one of the first abstract and stylized nature images. The multicolored cliffs of the New Mexico landscape inspired her famous painting Black Mesa Landscape, along with White Palace. Some of her famous flower paintings are Pineapple Bud and Calla Lilies on Red.
Featured image: Georgia O'Keeffe – Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico – Out Back of Marie's. Image via pinterest.com
The French-American painter John James Audubon was also an ornithologist and naturalist. His famous book The Birds of America became a major resource in the field of ornithology and he was credited with the discovery of 25 new species of birds. His celebrated and highly detailed paintings of nature and its wildlife include the work Golden Eagle, American Crow, and White Gyrfalcons. A number of important institutions celebrating nature carry his name as an honor to his achievements as both an artist and explorer of the world.
Featured image: John James Audubon – Birds of America. Image via edenkeeper.org. All images used for illustrative purposes only.