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The Picturesque Style in
Landscape Painting

Gainsborough, Constable, and Turner

Please click on thumbnail images to view full-sized ones.


Because we have been spending so much time with gardens lately, I want to begin this slide show with some scenes from gardens in order to provide a transition back to landscape painting. The movement in landscape painting, as Hunt describes it in the fifth chapter of his book, takes a direction away from literary allusion and towards a celebration of nature itself. The figures in a landscape painting become an integral part of the natural scene, and they are often doing something that has to do with nature -- farming or taking produce to market or tending sheep. Likewise, at the end of the century, as the essays we read by Knight and Price indicate, the taste in landscape gardening takes a direction toward the sublime and away from the beautiful. That is, along the spectrum of the picturesque, we begin to see more and more garden designs that incorporate the landscape in its rougher and more dramatic forms.

There is, for example, a movement away from the iconographic design of the garden at Stowe that you see in the Elysian Fields -- here, the River Styx crossed by the Shell Bridge and bordered by the Temple of British Worthies, both designed and built by William Kent. This part of the garden was meant to be read and pondered over intellectually. Visitors to the garden would have been expected to know the historical and political significance of each of the busts in British Worthies and each of the full-length statues of the virtuous Ancients across the water and up the hill. They would also have been expected to recognize Palladio's architectural style in the Palladian Bridge -- voids over voids and solids over solids -- and to have intellectually connected the harmony of the bridge's proportions to the harmony of nature. Although the Temple of Liberty, or Gothic Temple, was built in a neo-gothic style to celebrate British roots and British democracy rather than classical, Greek political ideals, its architectural allusion was meant to be read as clearly as that of the Palladian bridge. Even the Season's Fountain, placed in a quiet, small clearing in the woods, is dedicated to Thomson's poem and all but requires you to be familiar with the poem in order to enjoy the peace and quiet of the scene.

The central part of the garden at Studley Royal in Yorkshire has the same formal feel to it as much of the garden at Stowe, though there is less here to ponder intellectually. It is true that the Temple of Piety is in the absolute center of the garden and that its architecture is Tuscan -- the most basic and simple of all the orders. There is a moral statement to that design. What I'd like you to concentrate on, however, is how the center of the garden differs from its two extremities. The center of the garden lies at the "beautiful" end of the picturesque spectrum. It is neat and regular, and it is particularly smooth. As you move toward the Fountains Abbey end of the garden, the landscape becomes less smooth, and the ruins of the abbey illustrate the roughness and decay that are essential to the picturesque. Though the abbey is not "sublime" -- that is, though it is not so huge or uniform as to evoke astonishment -- it is solemn, and it evokes curiosity. The other end of the garden, the Valley of Seven Bridges, is also picturesque, but it is more playful, and the disposition of the landscape has more variety to it. I want you to remember the stone bridges here, because you'll find something quite similar in one of Gainsborough's landscape paintings.

Poussin Empire of Flora (1629)
Poussin's Empire of Flora, you may remember, is a study of mythological characters all of whom are victims of their own passions. Flora is the center of a larger circle of victims: on the left Ajax falls on his sword; next to him Narcissus stares at his reflection in an urn of water; above Narcissus, Clytie raises her face to the sky where her disinterested lover Apollo drives his chariot, disdainful of her pining; across the picture Hyacinthus raises his left arm to the mortal wound in his head received while sporting with Apollo; next to him the hunter Adonis, with his spear and dogs, points to a wound in his thigh where he was gored by a boar; and at the lower right are Crocus and the shepherdess Smilax who were turned into a flower and yew tree because of the impatience of their love. Note how many of these victims are named for plants (hence the empire of flora).

Poussin The Funeral of Phocion (1648)
You should also remember The Funeral of Phocion from the last slide show. Its subject is the funeral of a statesman who refused to be bribed and who was as a result condemned to death and an unworthy burial. You should notice how carefully composed the painting is, and how Poussin has paid attention to architectural detail in the distance while placing the human figures in the prominent foreground. The picture celebrates a story and a moral value. It is meant to be appreciated intellectually, just as the Elysian Fields at Stowe were.

Claude David at the Cave of Adullam (1658)
This painting of Claude's which you also saw last time, depicts that heroic moment in the Hebrew Scriptures when David refuses to drink the water that his soldiers have brought back for him through great peril. He says that if all of his soldiers cannot have some water, he will not drink it alone. His refusal is an example of his leadership, loyalty, and stoicism, and the painting is as much of an emblem of Ancient Virtue as the previous painting by Poussin. Though the landscape is more dominant in Claude's paintings, the viewer's pleasure was still expected to be primarily intellectual, and what he or she was expected to appreciate was not so much the vision of the artist but his performance. These paintings are not creative in the way that we normally think of creativity in our own time: they do not reveal the artist's imagination as much as his understanding. They are technical masterpieces, but their soul and spirit is in the subject matter, and that subject matter belongs to literature and tradition.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)

The Watering Place (before 1777)
Here, then, is a British Landscape. Horace Walpole, who thought that some of the views at Stowe were more beautiful than landscape paintings, once commented that this painting was the best landscape he had ever seen. The cows gathered in the pool of light in the foreground are far more central to the picture than the herders to the left. And the way in which Gainsborough catches the evening light glancing off the water dripping from their muzzles gives the painting a photographic quality reminiscent of some of the pastoral scenes Wordsworth recreates in his poetry.

Mountain Landscape with Peasants Crossing a Bridge (1784)
In his book on landscape painting, gardening, and poetry, John Dixon Hunt suggests that Gainsborough's joining of the human and the natural forces the scene of a painting back on the viewer who makes it his or her own. "The generalized shapes of animals and trees and people," he says, "leave their discrete identities to be identified by the spectator, who thereby 'creates' the landscape in his fashion" (215). If Hunt is right, then this picture can work for us in exactly the reversal of the way that Richard Paine Knight suggests a real landscape becomes picturesque. Knight believed that a viewer needed to be familiar with landscape paintings before he or she could find picturesque elements in a natural scene. Several minutes ago, I showed you a photograph of a real landscape in Yorkshire that had a number of rustic stone bridges in it. Now you see a landscape painting by Gainsborough composed around such a rustic stone bridge. What you bring with you from your experience should animate the painting. In other words, in Gainsborough your appreciation comes not from your knowledge of a historical event or a mythological story, nor from your ability to make some sort of intellectual meaning out of a scene. It comes from your ability to enrich his scene with scenes from your past or from your imagination.

The Market Cart (1786)
John Dixon Hunt comments that Gainsborough seems to have disliked putting figures into his landscapes for any other reason than to fill a place in the composition just as a tree or rock or stream or cottage would. The figures in Gainsborough's landscapes, then, are not observing the scene but helping to make it up. Nor are his figures allusions to literature or carriers of any readable meaning. There are no stories to be told. The humans are presented, as Hunt suggests, from the landscape's point of view rather than vice versa. The market cart here moves through the landscape without changing it, without disturbing it. The landscape itself is timeless. Nature is everything, and humans appear because they are in harmony with it.

Robert Andrews and His Wife (1748)
You have seen this picture by Gainsborough before. How do these figures fit into the landscape? They seem to stare mildly back out at us from the scene, as if to say "all this is ours." Where in Poussin's or Claude's pictures the history or mythology of the figures were important as examples of the roots of Western culture, here there is the celebration of good English stock -- a landowner, his wife, and his hunting dog.

The Morning Walk (1785)
Though they have in common the formality of pose of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew, this couple -- painted forty years later in the same period as The Market Cart, is moving through the landscape. Their movement adds a dynamic quality to the scene absent from the earlier portrait. In this sense, they have much in common with the aristocrats that populate the fête galantes of Watteau or the couples that populate Fragonard's Progress of Love. The landscape is the stage upon which they act out the parts written for them. (This couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hallett, are newlyweds, by the way, and the painting is their marriage portrait. What does it suggest to you about their relationship?) In addition, art critics, many of whom think that this is Gainsborough's finest work, point out his use of color as a unifying element. Technically, in terms of color, these figures are an essential part of the landscape: they do not dominate it as the Andrews do but, rather, complete it. Finally, their attention is directed not at us or the painter but something off to our left, a factor that draws our eyes into the scene itself. Though the couple themselves are not particularly moody, the scene itself is -- the dark, overhanging branches seem to merge with a brooding sky.

John Constable (1776-1837)

Malvern Hall (1809)
Constable painted places he was familiar with. He claimed, "I should paint my own places best -- painting is but another word for feeling. I associate my careless boyhood to all that lies on the banks of the Stour." Although he painted landscapes of property owned by others, and Malvern Hall is one of those paintings, he preferred to paint scenes directly from nature or scenes available to all viewers because, as he claimed, "a gentleman's park is my aversion. It is not beauty because it is not nature." His paintings of gentlemen's parks, like this one, were done by commission when he needed money. Even so, notice that Constable is interested, like Gainsborough, in mood. Look at the sky -- the flock of birds and the billowing clouds. The lake may be tranquil, but the sky it reflects is dramatic.

Flatford Mill (1817)

Stratford Mill (1820)

Dedham Vale (1828)
While many young French painters admired his work for its brightness, French critics called his work "like rich preludes...which mean nothing." Constable complained that the French "study (& they are very laborious students) art only -- and think so little of applying it to nature." Although Constable had his influences from other artists, and although he was classically trained, he demanded that the landscape painter should have a precise knowledge of the natural world, and he felt that landscape painting was a kind of empirical science (as opposed to a carrying on of tradition). He was a reader of literature and scientific theory, but he trusted his eyes most. His pictures, then, lack the kind of layers of meaning that may be found in the works of Poussin and Lorrain. "I look on pictures as things to be avoided," he said. "Connoisseurs look on pictures as things to be imitated, and this too with a deference and humbleness of submission amounting to total prostration of mind and original feeling." These attitudes led him to object to the idea of a national gallery, where paintings were collected for study. "Good God," he once exclaimed, "what a sad thing it is that this lovely art is so wrested to its own destruction and only used to blind our eyes and senses from seeing the sun shine, the fields bloom, the trees blossom, and to hear the foliage rustle." Constable, then took the exact opposite viewpoint from Addison, who thought that art should conform to a universal taste rather than taste conform to the practice of art. He strove against the accepted principles of taste in an attempt to establish rustic landscape on the same level as historical and classical landscape.

The Haywain (1821)

The Cornfield (1826)
Unlike Poussin, Lorrain, and Reynolds, Constable had an appreciation for historical art that was not connected to the drama of great occasions. He never painted a wholly invented landscape or one that formed a stage for the more important tragic historical or mythological event. His enjoyment and use of old places was simply their inducement to his own nostalgia for his boyhood. In this he has much in common with the poetry of Gray, Goldsmith, and Crabbe. He was irritated by painters, including Turner, who went looking for the unusual -- places disassociated from their own experience by physical, social, and spiritual distance. Constable also saw landscape as nationalistic. His home countryside as a subject was enlarged to portray places to be seen as particularly English. But he had no interest in portraying historical change or intellectual concepts. If his pictures depict change, it is physical and climatic change, not political or historical change.

Salisbury Cathedral, from
the Bishop's Grounds (1823)

Salisbury Cathedral, from
the River (1828)

Salisbury Cathedral, from
the Meadows (1831)
Look for a dual nature to his paintings. The body of the landscape -- the earth, vegetation, creatures, and objects--are in tension with the spirit of the landscape -- its light, enveloping atmosphere, moving air. Note Constable's rich atmosphere, his emphasis on the sky. Even the commissioned paintings of gentlemen's property like the one above emphasize the sky. Look also for the contrast of dark and light, termed chiaroscuro, in Italian "a clear dark." The three aspects of chiaroscuro -- natural phenomena, pictorial devices, and metaphors for human emotions -- are in the later works combined so that for Constable landscape became an instrument for self-confession. Note also that while human figures are often foregrounded in a landscape, they are not characterized specifically as they are in the paintings of Poussin and Lorrain. We might connect this particular aspect of Constable's art to what Johnson says about Shakespeare, that his characters are not individuals but a species.

Stonehenge (1836)
We may also connect Constable's lack of a consistent method and his disregard of the unities of painting to what Johnson says about Shakespeare's disregard of the unities of drama and what Reynolds says in his 13th Discourse about reason serving to tell the painter that he must "give way to feeling." The unities of painting were illumination, tone, space, notation, and touch. Illumination refers to the light source and the parallel shadows. Tone refers to the atmospheric perspective (the way colors fade at greater distances), just as space refers to the geometrical perspective. Notation refers to a set of graphic symbols consistently applied to represent forms -- leaves, clouds, ripples on water. Touch refers to the substance of the paint and its texture. Constable broke away from these rules in the 1820s because for him mood became more important: he no longer wanted to portray a structure of stable forms consistently lit by a single source of light. He wanted to paint nature as he saw it and felt it. One could say that in his artistic struggle between the mind and the self, the self finally won.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)

Like Constable, Turner was influenced by Reynolds, both his early emphasis on the "grand style," which Turner followed in paintings that look much like Lorrain's, and Reynolds' later emphasis on emotion. Unlike Constable, however, Turner went on sketching tours and preferred to paint in what is termed the "sublime" style; that is, he chose to emphasize the grandeur, mystery, violence, and horror of nature. Like Constable's human figures, Turner's are tiny by comparison to nature. Unlike Constable's however, Turner's are often grotesque, as if Turner wished to emphasize, like Hogarth, how foolish human pride is.

In these slides, you should note Turner's free style. He also rejected the unities of traditional painting, but unlike Constable, who chose sedate subjects, Turner matched a violent style with violent subjects. You should also notice that Turner often embedded specific social and political messages in his pictures. He has a point to make, much as Crabbe had a point to make, and not always a pleasant one, in his poems. If Constable's landscapes reveal a nostalgia for his youth in the countryside similar to the nostalgia we discussed in Goldsmith's The Deserted Village, Turner's reveal both the impersonal violence of nature found in Thomson's Winter and the negative results of what many thought progress in society and technology.

Buttermere with a Part of Conniston Water (1798)
These first two paintings were done while Turner was on a tour of the Lake District just before the turn of the 19th Century. Picturesque tours were as common in the late 18th Century as the Grand Tour of France and Italy were in previous generations. In addition to the Lakes, Turner painted in the Scottish Highlands and in Wales, two other areas where picturesque tourists traveled to. Though the landscape is hardly violent or horrible, note the weather and the rainbow and Turner's use of ciaroscuro, or contrast of light and dark. Turner shared with Constable a fascination for atmospheric phenomena in flux.

Morning amongst the Coniston Fells (1798)
Here Turner chooses another Lake District subject near Buttermere. Coniston Water lies to the south of Derwent Water and to the west of Windermere. Notice that Turner chooses a morning scene, with the mist rolling off the top of the ridge, and that his landscape is even more rugged than Constable's. Notice also the shepherds and flock of sheep in the center of the picture. For all practical purposes, though he exhibited the painting with a quotation from Book V of Milton's Paradise Lost, Turner could be painting Wordsworth's Michael, whose literary birth occurred two years after this picture was exhibited.

Crossing the Brook (1815)

Hagar and the Angel (1640s)
I wanted you to see this picture by Turner side-by-side with a similar one by Claude. (If you ever get the chance to visit the National Gallery in London, you can visit a small octagonal room that houses other similar pictures by Claude and Turner hung side-by-side. Turner gave them to the Nation with the stipulation that they be hung together.) Notice here how Turner applies the Claudean model to the English landscape. Turner's picture is of real place in Devonshire: he depicts the Tamar Valley with the Gunnislake Bridge in the distance. But Turner goes beyond the kind of topographical representation that you saw earlier in Canaletto: like Claude he gathers idealized landscape elements into an exquisitely balanced composition, irradiated by the glow of delicately graded golden sunlight. Turner has, therefore, fused the real and the ideal. His painting suggests that the wealthy landowners who might purchase his landscapes no longer needed to go on the Grand Tour to Italy in order to find Arcadian scenes. (By the way, Turner and Constable are in agreement on this point, actually quite literally. Look again at Constable's Dedham Vale above -- it, too, is based on Claude's Hagar and the Angel.)

Calais Pier (1803)
Let me turn now to a series of Turner's seascapes, for which he was heavily influenced by Dutch painters. England, like Holland, owed its economic and military power to its merchant marine and navy, and Turner's seascapes are ofted patriotic. Here, note the flatness of the clouds, as if they are a painted backdrop for a theatre set. Notice also the allegory of French and British ships nearly colliding in a storm. This work was painted when a resumption of hostilities with France seemed likely, and the opening in the dark sky above the two ships may easily represent the chance for peace.

The Fighting Temeraire (1838)
This is another painting that makes a personal and political statement about what the world is becoming. Note the tug, with its mast and funnel reversed, used as a metaphor for the replacement of wind power by steam power. Note also that the sailing ship, which had seen action in the Battle of Trafalgar, has had its masts and yards restored and that it rides above the tug majestically. Note also the time of day -- sunset and moonrise.

The Slave Ship (1840)
This painting also has political overtones. Insurance companies covered the loss of slaves by drowning but not illness, so this slaver has cast off the dead and dying as a typhoon comes on. Notice the sharks. The picture makes a social comment about human inhumanity, the love of money overriding human decency. Several of our poets, including Goldsmith, Crabbe, and Wordsworth, make a similar point in their poems.

The Snowstorm (1842)
This painting depicts what it is like to be at sea in the center of a cataclysmic storm. This might remind you of the farmer who dies in the snowstorm in Thompson's Winter. Remember all that you have learned about the movement toward sensation in both landscape painting and landscape gardening. Remember what Price says about elements of the sublime within the picturesque.

Sunrise, a Castle on a Bay:
Solitude (1840-45)

Landscape with Psyche at
the Palace of Cupid (1664)
Here is another pair of paintings by Claude and Turner, Claude's being the inspiration for Turner's. This is a late painting by Turner, and it provides a striking contrast to the apocalyptic and stormy character of many of his seascapes from the same period -- The Slave Ship and The Snowstorm, for example. Solitude responds to The Enchanted Castle in the same way that Crossing the Brook responds to Landscape with Hagar and the Angel: it asserts the value of a peaceful, idealized landscape. But this later painting reduces Claude's original to its essentials of form and color much as Turner's later paintings of Venice reduce Canaletto's compositons of the same scenes to their essentials.

Bridge of Sighs, the Ducal Palace, and
Custom-House: Canaletti Painting (1833)

The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella,
from the Steps of the Europa (1842)
Here is an example of what I just pointed out. In the first painting, Turner renders Canaletto's slyle without, however, Canaletto's particular weaknesses (Turner's shadows are more consistent and exact, and his water is rendered more realistically). In the second painting, while the particular buildings are still recognizable, the entire painting is more hazy and indistinct. Turner, like Monet and Pissarro and the other French Impressionists, was interested in capturing the differing atmospheric effects and the light at different times of the day. But notice that human figures are still integral elements of the composition. There are still figures in the landscape.

Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844)
This final painting takes us back to the English landscape, making a similar comment on the Industrial Revolution as he did with The FIghting Temeraire. Note the puffs of smoke, the rabbit, the open front of the engine to show the boiler. Turner takes liberties with reality here in order to show his own personal vision. We are now worlds away from Poussin's Empire of Flora, where we began today. The revolution in painting was complete.

John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,