Jean Cauthen…another installment of the Mini Art History Class

Breaking Bad

Those landscape painters among us can’t recall a single fist fight breaking out over our humble art form (Okay, maybe that ONE time. But SHE hurled the first swing. But really. I digress). Historically speaking, most would not consider landscape painting as the controversial art form we think of with, say, a Jackson Pollock or Damien Hirst .

For heavens sake, landscapes are so harmless that THIS was my last year’s Christmas Card.

JC Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Hunters_in_the_Snow
Hunters In The Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, ca.1565) Oil on panel, 46 in × 63¾, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

But perhaps, like your cat, those greeting card landscapes aren’t as innocent as they look. And among their ranks, are the artists of the Netherlands.

BadAss Dutch Landscape Painters

You could fit the Netherlands into Maryland. But you’d have to shove pretty hard to include all its groundbreaking artists as well. Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Bosch, Breugal, Vermeer, Mondrian, Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Frans Hal…well heck, they can’t even fit around this table at Applebee’s.


43912_fullimage_Syndics of the Drapers Guild by Rembrandt 1662 Rijksmuseum Amsterdam_492x307
De Staalmeesters, Rembrandt, 1662, oil on canvas, 75.4 x 110, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Many of those on the list are landscape painters; landscape painters with an axe to grind. And the object of their discontent was none other than the Catholic Church.

Not So Sunday School Suitable Anymore

Like all the the European artists of the time, previous 15thc. themes of the Dutch centered around religion. However, after the Spanish Wars and subsequent suppression by those conquerors, painters voiced their protest (get it? Protestant?) in paint.

Landscape painters of Northern Netherlands (Again. Protestant), like Bruegel, sought to break from the religious-themed paintings that served of reminders of the rule of the Catholic Spanish Kings. Instead, they chose more secular themes in rebellion against those.

Their home-town team fight-song came in the form of paintings of farms and hunters and peasant weddings.

Later, it would be the English who chose Landscape as their messenger of choice.

Those crazy tree huggin’, outdoor lovin’ Romantics

In the early 1800’s English painter, John Constable bucked the entrenched system of hoighty toighties by choosing NOT to paint the mythological, historical settings, and instead, as he put it, “I should paint my own places best.” This mantra is the writers’ workshop equivalent of “write what you know.”

Golding Constable's Flower Garden John Constable 1815
Golding Constable’s Flower Garden, 1815 John Constable (British, 1776–1837) Oil on canvas, 13 x 20,Ipswich Borough council Museums and Galleries

He and other Romantic artists warned against the encroachment of the Industrial Age. Constable’s diary reads like a Sierra Club handbook.

Likewise, the American version of the Romantic painters. A stern “talking to” in paint.

It is harder to find Waldo than the moral message encoded in a American Hudson River School Artist, Thomas Cole landscapes.

So take the ruler with which he is rapping our knuckles and draw a diagonal through his 1836 painting, The Oxbow.

Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 76, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In a time, when Western Expansion was a political hot potato, he gives us this flip chart demonstration of what civilizing might look like.

If you ever read From Rembrandt to Diebenkorn , painters like to supply other painters with good rules of painting and living. One Dutch artist, Karel Van Mander (master of Frans Hals. In his popular Painter’s Book ), he supplied this list of do’s and don’ts. It is pretty telling.

  • Do not get drunk or fight
  • Do not fall in love too young and marry too soon. The bride must be 10 years younger than the groom. (Uh…)
  • While traveling avoid little inns. Always examine the bedding. (okay that’s a good tip)
  • Be careful in Italy for there are many opportunities for wasting your money (That 6 euros for a gelato, for example)
  • Keep away from prostitutes. It is a sin and they make you sick. (yeah. I would say so)
  • Show Italians how wrong they are in their belief that Flemish painters cannot paint human figures.
  • In Rome, study drawing, in Venice, painting.
  • Finally, eat breakfast early and avoid melancholia.

Later, in France, those crazy Impressionists would continue the rebellious tradition. Their patches of unblended color, the spontaneity and the everyday subject matter would cause the critics to claim ‘foul’.

So. I ask you.  Are you badass enough to landscape paint?

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.

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