Establishing Conventions

This is a fairly random collection of landscape paintings, gathered from mainly from the Tate website ( but also from Victoria Art Gallery in Bath (
There are several stylistic devices that feature regularly in these examples;
– The sky often occupies more than half the scene, and clouds are used to reduce the otherwise negative space
– There is often no specific foreground; people, animals, trees or buildings will either be in the middleground or as part of the general background.
– Trees and buildings feature either as framing devices or as central points
– Domestic farm animals also frequently appear.

The common usage of buildings and especially trees is useful in providing a scale to the picture, and as a way to direct the viewer’s gaze. The subjects – animal or human – provide context so that the picture is not just a random scene. Malcolm Andrews (Andrews,1999:18) describes the ‘habitat theory’ proposed by Jay Appleton, which says that we are naturally more receptive to scenes that offer a sense of refuge. We are less receptive to open scenes with no prospect of being able to hide. Many of these also illustrate an idealised world, where the artist has constructed the painting to lessen the reality of the world the inhabited. The scene may not be perfect but it is intended to appeal, not to repel. Some, for example the Joseph Cristall, are explicit in identifying with a fictional ‘golden’ period.

Without being able to specifically identify the intentions of the artist in these cases, I am speculating on the meanings of these paintings. Andrews describes how in previous centuries artists had constructed landscape scenes to illustrate biblical stories, and how later these illustration would be replaced by ‘disguise symbolism’ (Andrews,1999: 41). Use of this disguised symbolism means a less didactic intention by the painter but implies more work for the viewer in understanding the painting.

Ann Bermingham says in her essay ‘English Landscape Drawing around 1795’ (Mitchell,2002:79), around this period “The picturesque referred less and less to the Claudian propects and panoramas of the Brownian garden and came in time to stand for their antithesis, that is, the smaller-scaled, less obviously designed picturesque garden”. This can be seen for example in the differences between the formal scenes by James Lambert, George Lambert and George Smith of Chichester, and the later more rustic scenes by Thomas Luny, David Colwell Bates and Patrick Naysmith. The world being depicted becomes less idealised, with some of the hardships of real life allowed to intrude.

The conventions and language in use here are still in use now. In some cases this is perhaps because of unwittingly following what is accepted as a ‘good’ view. This is one of mine, where I was not conscious of following any rules – it just seemed right to me

This is by Eugene Atget from 1901. It looks more of a misty winter scene but still conforms to the same conventions
Eugene Atget - Arcueil-Cachan, Parc de Madame de Provigny
Eugene Atget – Arcueil-Cachan, Parc de Madame de Provigny

Alec Soth in ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’ ( includes an image of Baton Rouge that subverts the conventions by choosing a scene that seems to tilt; the banks of the river and the trees create a diagonal frame that acts against the horizontal bridge in the background. The language is the same but acts as if to point out that the world is not necessarily so neatly ordered.

Malcolm Andrews (1999): Landscape and Western Art: Hong Kong: Oxford University Press

W.J.T.Mitchell(2002):Landscape and Power: Unites States of America:The University of
Chicago Press

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