• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Not-So-Innocent Eye

Landscape into Art

by Kenneth Clark
Harper and Row, 2nd ed., 248 pp., $17.50

Le Paysage français au XIX siècle, 1824-1874: L’École de la nature

by Pierre Miquel
Éditions de la Martinelle, 3 vols., 800 pp., 1420 francs

In a famous outburst Michelangelo is supposed to have told the Portuguese painter Francisco de Holanda that “they paint in Flanders only to deceive the external eye, things that gladden you and of which you cannot speak ill. Their painting is of stuffs, bricks and mortar, the grass of the fields, the shadows of trees, and bridges and rivers, which they call landscapes, and little figures here and there. And all this, though it may appear good to some eyes, is in truth done without reason, without symmetry or proportion, without care in selecting or rejecting.” Such pictures, concluded Michelangelo, were only suitable for “young women, monks and nuns, or certain noble persons who have no ear for true harmony.”

The idea that landscape painting was too easy—both to produce and to enjoy—for long counted against it in elevated circles, and a vast amount of effort has been expended by artists themselves, by theorists, and by historians to prove the opposite. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers emphasized the role that could be played by a judicious choice of landscape in heightening the moral lessons imparted by the more serious narrative elements of the picture; Ruskin exalted the absolute value of truth as an end in itself; Ernst Gombrich has demonstrated the part that we, the beholders, are required to play if we are to interpret what the painter is apparently recording for us; Kenneth Clark has emphasized the extreme subtlety with which the balance between naturalism and tradition has to be maintained if the landscape is not to fall into the banal or the sterile. No one can believe any longer that those delightful little figures whom we can see in so many canvases of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries nonchalantly sitting on some rocky ledge to sketch a waterfall or a precipice had only the problems of the weather to contend with as they set about trying to record faithfully what was before their eyes.

That the issues were very much more complicated than Michelangelo claimed has of course long been recognized by anyone who has paid any attention to them, but in recent years it has been Ernst Gombrich, more than anyone else, who has set out to provide a coherent theoretical scheme for the rise and practice of landscape painting.1

The old textbook ideas were simple enough. As man acquired more and more skill in overcoming the dangers posed by his natural surroundings, so he became more and more conscious of the beauty of the world and more and more determined to reproduce it. With increasing virtuosity he introduced landscapes at first into the backgrounds of the devotional or narrative pictures he was required to paint until gradually the ostensible subject of his panel or canvas was to all intents and purposes swamped by what had originally been thought of as only a decorative accessory. And once landscape painting achieved a certain autonomy, artists became increasingly anxious to throw away the dead weight of traditional representation which was based largely on conventional symbols and stereotypes, and to forget as far as possible what they “knew” so as to record instead only what they “saw.” This proved a long and laborious journey, but it reached a triumphant culmination in the masterpieces of the French Impressionists.

Old theories never die, they merely fade away. While drastically modifying this account, Gombrich himself retained those elements in it which conformed to the dictates of common sense and the evidence of history. He postulated that landscape acquired its independence as a genre not so much through accident as through the response of Northern artists to a specific demand for it from sophisticated Italian patrons who had read of the prevalence of landscape painting in antiquity and who wanted to have examples of it for themselves. To sum up in his own words:

I believe that the idea of natural beauty as an inspiration of art…is, to say the least, a very dangerous over-simplification…. Renaissance humanists talked about landscape painting before artistic practice caught up with them….

Moreover, Gombrich later demonstrated, at length and in closely argued pages, that modern theories of perception have shown that the old dichotomy between “seeing” and “knowing” was a fallacious one; far from rejecting the inheritance of the past in order to paint what he actually saw, the artist just as much as the beholder could make no sense of landscape at all unless that changing inheritance was constantly made use of to provide an initial “schema.” To the post-Gombrichian “the innocent eye” is about as innocent as, to the post-Freudian, are the effusive letters of Victorian schoolmasters to their favorite pupils.

What are probably the two most popular books on landscape written in the English language in the twentieth century, Christopher Hussey’s The Picturesque and Kenneth Clark’s Landscape into Art, both appeared before Gombrich’s ruthless shaking-up of old assumptions (in 1927 and 1949 respectively), but both have been republished since. Hussey gives an account of the speculations and activities of an extraordinarily brilliant, entertaining, and articulate group of English theorists, planners, and satirists (Payne Knight, Uvedale Price, the Reverend William Gilpin, Jane Austen, and Thomas Love Peacock among others). He shows how they sought to thrash out the meaning of the new concept of “picturesque” and, in collaboration with, or opposition to, a group of talented “improvers,” to change the very nature of the English landscape. Hussey’s learned and spirited book can be read still with great pleasure and profit as it has been for two generations.2

But it is a pity that the author was not able, as he had hoped, to produce a revised edition, for—even more than he himself realized—the intervening appearance of such “classics” as those by Clark and Gombrich has made some of the earlier part antiquated and untenable. If I quote one such passage, it is in no way to deride a book that has rightly proved of such value to so many people, but purely to indicate how radically our thinking about landscape painting has changed in the last half century:

With the gradual dwindling of the religious faith that inspired the early and mature periods of Italian art and inhibited the enjoyment of landscape, had grown the divine curiosity of the Renaissance…. The world in which Titian’s Madonnas move is as beautiful as the Mother of Christ, and as worthy of being painted. Indeed, it challenged his curiosity still more strongly. He knew why he loved the Virgin, but why did he love the trees and flowers and the blue Alps? Being a painter he left the answer to the philosophers and settled down to paint those aspects of nature that he felt most beautiful—the broad masses of sward and foliage, the light glinting through leaves and catching the tree trunks. He first among Europeans painted nature as he saw it, not as he knew it to be from the testimony of his other senses.

In his new, and very much revised, edition of Landscape into Art Kenneth Clark also writes of the depth of Titian’s feeling and powers of observation as a landscapist of fact, but at no stage, either in this or in the first edition (in which Titian’s role was much undervalued) does he ever postulate a necessary distinction between an artist’s sight and his other senses. Indeed, way back in 1949, he poured scorn on the classic formulation of this theory:

[Monet] said to an American pupil that “he wished he had been born blind and then had suddenly gained his sight so that he would have begun to paint without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him.” It is the most extreme, and most absurd, statement of the sensational aesthetic.

Both Clark and (a few years later) Gombrich were forced to consider the question of the miraculously cured blind man, and the ways in which they disposed of him are both revealing in themselves, and demonstrate why—unlike Hussey’s The Picturesque—the force of Landscape into Art has not been seriously impaired by Gombrich’s undermining of so many traditional assumptions. For Clark the flaw lies in the nature of the artist’s own gifts and achievements:

Actually Monet’s technique made him particularly dependent on the nature of his subjects; and they were limited. Only sun on water and sun on snow could give full play to the prismatic vision and the sparkling touch. In such pictures Monet has remained without an equal. But in order to prove his point he chose for the subjects of his experiments, Cathedrals and Haystacks. No doubt he did so intentionally in order to show that the most articulate works of man, and the most formless, were pictorially of equal importance to the painter of light. But the choice, especially that of cathedrals, was disastrous, because grey Gothic façades do not sparkle. In an attempt to make them vehicles of light Monet painted them now pink, now mauve, now orange; and it is evident that even he, with his marvellous capacity for seeing the complementary colours of a shadow, did not really believe that cathedrals looked like melting ice-creams.

For Gombrich the refutation of Monet’s aspirations takes a more scientific turn:

That blind man of Ruskin’s who suddenly gains sight does not see the world as a painting by Turner or Monet—even Berkeley knew that he could only experience a smarting chaos which he has to learn to sort out in an arduous apprenticeship. Indeed, some of these unfortunates give up and never learn it at all. For seeing is never just registering. It is the reaction of the whole organism to the patterns of light that stimulate the back of our eyes…. Nobody has ever seen a visual sensation, not even the impressionists, however ingenuously they stalked their prey.

Art historians have been wary of writing about Kenneth Clark for a number of reasons. In recent years his unconcealed contempt for pedantry has sometimes appeared to them to draw uncomfortably close to a denigration of scholarship. And the astonishing popularity he has been able to establish with the public offends their puritanism—or arouses their envy. In England, at least, he has managed to break through to the most unvisual of audiences: the high tables at our universities buzz with talk of Rembrandt after his television performances with all the fervor of football fans after a particularly exciting match.

Faced with this unheard-of phenomenon, professional art historians like to think of him as engaged in an activity parallel to their own, but essentially different from it, and he himself has often appeared to endorse this distinction. His later works have nearly all taken the form of reprinted talks, and have nearly all eschewed notes and bibliographies. It has therefore been found safest to refer blandly to his wonderful command of the English language and his place in a tradition of great preachers and popularizers which includes Hazlitt, Pater, Ruskin, and Roger Fry.

  1. 1

    See E.H. Gombrich, The Renaissance Theory of Art and the Rise of Landscape, 1950, reprinted in Norm and Form (Phaidon, 1966), and Art and Illusion (Princeton, 1960).

  2. 2

    Hussey can now be supplemented by The Genius of the Place—The English Landscape Garden 1620-1820 (edited by John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis, Harper & Row, 1976) which provides a useful survey of current thinking, an up-to-date bibliography, and an anthology of texts ranging from Wotton to Peacock, many of which are little known and very inaccessible.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print