Jean Cauthen…another Art History Mini Class

Over Mona’s Shoulder:

Landscape Painting Early Days

One hot summer day in 1473 a young artist sat on a Tuscan hill and sketched the first known landscape “on location”.

Leonardo's landscape drawing on location
Leonardo’s landscape sketch on location

The artist was Leonardo da Vinci and the scene was near the Arno River.

Can you make my halo bigger?

The sketch was a first. At the time, rich and religious patrons were seeking only pictures of themselves, Bible stories or any combination of the two. If a painting’s main subject matter had been hills or trees it would have been considered the velvet Elvis of its time. Not that there’s anything wrong with velvet Elvis.

So, except for some dusty ancient Roman wall paintings, the art history landscape would not be littered with….er…..landscapes.

Leave the window open, would ya?

However, look closely and you can spot the rumblings of a growing interest in the great outdoors. For example, squint your eyes, peer just through the window, behind the woman, in this Fra Filippo Lippi painting. Could you spot it? An itsy-bitsy little landscape?

Fra Filippl Lippi
Portrait of a Man and a Woman at a Casement. (c.1440) Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Lippi detail
Fra Filippo Lippi, detail

1450-1600:  Soooooooo Retro

These natural world rumblings were part of the Renaissance (a revival of ancient Greek and Roman ideas). We artsy types blather on about the art and architecture of the time, but geeks of any flavor will tell you that all things Greek and Roman meant delving into science, math, philosophy, astronomy, Humanism, physics, medicine and literature. Pretty much everything those guys thought about was worthy of re-visiting.

Given this fascination, who but Leonardo (our resident polymath and artist on a hill), would be better suited to lead the Renaissance charge back to the future?

Leonardo's Water Wheel
Leonardo’s Water Wheel

Leonardo on the rocks: not just a drink idea

The era fit perfectly with the learning obsessed Leonardo. He grappled with physics, especially in regard to geology, water and hydraulics. He saw water as “the sculptor of the earth.” Erosion shaped rocks. Like the ones in Madonna of the Rocks. A scene most artists depict in a desert, Leonardo sees as an excuse to paint rocks.

Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks
“Madonna of the Rocks” (1492) by Leonardo da Vinci, The National Gallery of London.


A Cypress tree is never just a Cypress tree

Leonardo saw landscape as metaphor. Rocks as something elemental. Cavernous. Mysterious.

The earth, he believed, mirrored the systems of the human body (think: rivers as blood vessels) as well as the soul. Leonardo may have penned drawings like the one on the hill to aid in his knowledge of geography (draw “to understand,” he said). But the landscapes that made their way to his canvases are likely from his own complicated head.

Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation landscape, detail

Olin Mills called. He wants his backdrop.

In that most famous of paintings, the one with the sfumato-smokey eyes that have held our gaze for over 500 years, we see a landscape that is oh-so-lovingly depicted.

Mona’s Landscape, the detail of Mona Lisa

It is a view that includes waterways (of course!), rocks and roads.

His famous atmospheric perspective dissolves the crisp details of the middle ground into a light. Men live in this space. There are roads. A bridge. Leonardo loved this painting. He never delivered it to the man who commissioned it, but rather kept it, reworking it until his death in France. As he applied some 40 layers of thin paint, the view over Mona’s shoulder may have emerged as a roadmap.

It did not map a real geographic space, nor was it a fantasy. Rather, perhaps those rocky roads traced a summary of the artist’s own search.

A search chronicled in thousands of pages of notebooks; a search that led him to dissect human bodies; to study the natural and the man-made.

To imagine robots and flying machines. A search that started on a hill in 1473.

Jean ProfileJean Cauthen is a Painter and fake Art Historian. She has a studio in Mint Hill, NC and teaches Arts and Culture classes at UNCC. Her painting workshops in Italy always include a “Gelato and Art History” tour of Florence, Italy where she asks that participants keep any discrepancies to themselves and focus on the gelato.


Next installment, May 2016: The Dutch Landscape Painters: A Protest 

The Chinese may have beaten everyone to the punch on landscape painting. Evidence of  landscape and paintings as early as 1120.


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