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Eighteenth Century Landscape.doc
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Eighteenth Century Landscape

The modern attitude to nature is so different from that of the eighteenth century that it is not easy for us to understand the prejudices against which the early English landscape-painters had to struggle. At the beginning of the century the very idea that the genre of pure landscape could be a fit subject for art was little more than a hundred years old, and the idea still lingered among persons of 'taste' that a landscape-painting must be dignified by some ostensible figure-subject.

Their historical interest is great, for even more perhaps than Wilson and Gainsborough they were the founders of the English landscape school. Thomas Malton (1748-1804), Paul Sandby (1725-1809), MA Rooker (1743-1804), Edward Dayes (1763-1804), Thomas Hearne (1744-1817) are among the masters of this school whose work has a personality and refinement which repays careful study. The most important artist of all was J.R. Cozens, the son of Alexander Cozens, a water-colour painter, drawing-master, and writer on art.

Dutch Influence on English Landscape School

The feeling for landscape was strongest in the north of Europe, especially in Flanders, and before the middle of the fifteenth century Van Eyck had painted landscape backgrounds which were as true in their sense of space, lighting, and atmosphere as anything that was produced in the next three hundred years, and it was in Flanders that pictures which approached to pure landscape were first painted. With the decline of religious enthusiasm the interest in the background grew, and some painters, notably Joachim Patenier, and later Pieter Brueghel the Elder, reduced the scale of their figures to insignificance in relation to their landscape backgrounds. But it was not till the seventeenth century that landscape pure and simple really came into its own. In Protestant Holland, painters, looking for new subject-matter to replace the old devotional subjects, turned their attention to landscape, and a school of artists arose numbering among them Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709), Salomon van Ruysdael (1603-70), and Aelbert Cuyp (1620-90), whose work helped to form the conventional English taste in the next century.

The Two Styles of 18th Century Landscape Art

There were, then, two main styles of landscape which had the approval of the eighteenth-century arbiter of taste, the classical and the Dutch. The works of these two schools were regarded as models, and from them were derived rules, principles, and canons of taste by which all landscape could be judged. No appeal to natural truth could weigh against an appeal to the rules of good taste, and in the age of reason raw nature untamed by the will of man found little favour with anyone. The literature of the period illustrates this point of view. Any but the tamest and most cultivated aspects of nature are described, as a rule, with unmixed horror. This was perhaps natural in an age when man was particularly conscious of his own dignity, and when the wild forces of nature still untamed constituted a threat which he could not disregard. The horrid Alps spoke of nothing but cold and hardship, but a picture of a 'gentleman's seat' or park was a heartening sight to remind him of his rich acres and his honour in the land.

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