Landscape Art and History

Landscape art is a term that covers the depiction of natural scenery such as mountains, valleys, trees, rivers, and forests, and especially art where the main subject is a wide view, with its elements arranged into a coherent composition. In other works landscape backgrounds for figures can still form an important part of the work. Sky is almost always included in the view, and weather is often an element of the composition. Detailed landscapes as a distinct subject are not found in all artistic traditions, and develop when there is already a sophisticated tradition of representing other subjects. The two main traditions spring from Western painting and Chinese art, going back well over a thousand years in both cases. Landscape photography has been very important since the 19th century, and is covered by its own article.

The word landscape is from the Dutch, landschap originally meaning a patch of cultivated ground, and then an image. The word entered the English language at the start of the 17th century, purely as a term for works of art; it was not used to describe real vistas before 1725. If the primary purpose of a picture is to depict an actual, specific place, especially including buildings prominently, it is called a topographical view. Such views, extremely common as prints, are often seen as inferior to fine art landscapes, although the distinction is not always meaningful.


Landscape with scene from the Odyssey, Rome, c. 60-40 BCE.

Zhan Ziqian, Strolling About in Spring, a very early Chinese landscape, c. 600

Shen Zhou, Poet on a Mountain c. 1500. Painting and poem by Shen Zhou: “White clouds encircle the mountain waist like a sash,/Stone steps mount high into the void where the narrow path leads far./Alone, leaning on my rustic staff I gaze idly into the distance./My longing for the notes of a flute is answered in the murmurings of the gorge.”

Hand G, Bas-de-page of the Baptism of Christ,Turin-Milan Hours, Flanders c. 1425

Titian, La Vierge au Lapin à la Loupe (The Virgin of the Rabbit), 1530, Louvre, Paris. Idealized Italianate landscape background.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565: Peace and agriculture in a pre-Romantic ideal landscape, without sublime terrors

Claude Lorrain, Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia, 1682. The landscape as history painting.

Jan van Goyen, Dune landscape, c. 1630-1635, an example of the “tonal” style in Dutch Golden Age painting

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Park atPetworth House, c. 1830

Frederic Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes, 1859. Church was part of the American Hudson River School.

Isaac Levitan, Above Eternal Peace, 1894.


Landscape history is the study of the way in which humanity has changed the physical appearance of the environment – both present and past. It is sometimes referred to as landscape archaeology. It was first recognised as a separate area of study during the 20th century and uses evidence and approaches from other disciplines including archaeology, architecture, ecology, aerial photography, local history and historical geography. See softscapes, hardscapes and taskscapes.

 Origin and scope

In England, landscape history emerged as an academic discipline following the publication of The Making of the English Landscape by W. G. Hoskins in 1955, although some topics that are now considered part of landscape history had been identified earlier. Darby, for example, gives many early examples of regional characterisation of landscapes.

Following Hoskins, landscape history expanded in various directions. There are published landscape histories of a number of English counties. Other authors have studied the landscape at earlier periods. One productive avenue has been the study of specific landscape features such as fields, villages, and so on. Managed woodland has been extensively studied by Oliver Rackham.

The scope of landscape history ranges from specific individual features to areas covering hundreds of square miles. Topics studied by landscape historians include:

  • the form (morphology) of settlements – for example whether they are dispersed or nucleated;
  • the status of settlements – for example Anglo-Saxon multiple estates;
  • deserted medieval villages which provide evidence of earlier village forms;
  • field systems which can be used to date landscape features as well as illuminating earlier landscapes;
  • field boundaries or boundaries of larger units such as parishes or counties;
  • place-names which have been used to illustrate landscape features, particularly Anglo-Saxon place-names.


Two complementary approaches can be used to study landscape history – fieldwork and desk research. Fieldwork involves physical inspection of the landscape to identifyearthworks and other potential features. Documentary desk research involves finding references to landscape features in primary and secondary sources. Among the most useful documentary sources are maps. Modern aerial photographs are useful for identifying large-scale features; earlier aerial photographs may show features that have now been lost.

The origin of features can often be related to the geology and ecology of the area being studied – for example the importance of springs and the suitability of the soil for different forms of agriculture.

Source: Wikipedia