Imagining Landscapes

Though it may not be obvious to European eyes, the anonymous English lithograph (ITEM 2.2) also derives from a distinctive and coherent tradition which, though certainly less ancient and perhaps less rigid than the Chinese, nevertheless comprises a learned vocabulary of technique and convention. These ready formulae, tagged by art historians as ideal, sublime, romantic or picturesque in accord with well developed aesthetic theories of the time, have become for people of European culture a way of looking at the natural world, a way of seeing nature. Thus, when we look at a landscape painting which follows these traditional modes, cultural and stylistic components of the representation are often completely overlooked. For example, we may imagine a picture to be extremely close to nature while in fact it is composed entirely of artistic conventions. Thousands of compositions, including those shown here, portray geographical locations around the world which lend themselves to this treatment.

Landscape with piping shepherd and a flight to egypt


Landscape with piping shepherd and a flight to Egypt, after Claude Lorraine
Oil on canvas, 103.5 x 135.2 cm
National Gallery of Victoria
Felton Bequest 1946

A view of a lake in the mountains


George Caleb Bingham, A view of a lake in the mountains, c.1853
Oil on canvas, 53.3 x 79.4 cm
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Los Angeles County Funds

Landscape with a river


Amelia Long (1772-1837), Landscape with a rifler, n.d.
Wash and black chalk on blue paper
Trustees of the British Museum

Conversely, when looking out across a natural landscape, we often choose to focus on those aspects of the view we deem 'picturesque’, a word which originally referred to a fit subject for painting (according to the prevailing aesthetic canon) but which has come to mean simply 'pretty as a picture'. The earlier more philosophical use of the term picturesque might include elements considered ugly in themselves, say a gypsy's hovel, harmoniously integrated into the composition, whereas the later more commonplace usage becomes synonymous with 'beautiful'. But it is significant that in either usage the eye has learned to respond to select qualities in nature abstracted from other qualities which are ignored.

Even Chiang Yee, painting for a Western audience, makes some use of the European idiom. His horizontal rectangular frame (ITEM 2.1) for instance, is certainly not of the Chinese tradition. His twin trees in the foreground are decidedly Claudian (i.e. influenced by Claude Lorraine) in placement, though not in technique. Finally, one might even cite the inclusion of cattle as far more common in European than Chinese landscapes. Thus, we see how depictions of nature may be influenced by training, cultural tradition and intended audience.

Let us return now to the question originally raised in connection with the two pictures (ITEMS 2.1 and 2.2) of the English Lake District: which is the more realistic portrayal of the Jaws of Borrowdale? Granted that they both make use of aesthetic conventions and compositional formulae, can it be said that one imitates nature more accurately than the other?

After several years of posing this question to 'European' students in America and Australia, I can say that a large number of them assured me with great confidence that the European landscape tradition is more realistic, while the Chinese is more stylised. They felt that Chiang Yee's picture relies more on cultural convention and less on the constraints of topographic reality than does the English picture. More, however, felt unable to decide the issue while a very small number chose the Chinese as a better mirror of reality.

A view on lake windermere, looking towards ambleside


Julius Caesar Ibbetson, A view on Lake Windermere, looking towards Ambleside, c.1805
Oil on canvas, 50.1 x 64.2 cm
Yale Center for British An
Paul Mellon Collection

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