John Constable, 'Flatford Mill ('Scene on a Navigable River')' 1816-17

John Constable
Flatford Mill ('Scene on a Navigable River') 1816-17
Oil on canvas
support: 1016 x 1270 mm frame: 1331 x 1583 x 162 mm
Bequeathed by Miss Isabel Constable as the gift of Maria Louisa, Isabel and Lionel Bicknell Constable 1888

One of the principal types or genres of subject for Western art

The appreciation of nature for its own sake, and its choice as a specific subject for art, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the seventeenth century landscape was confined to the background of paintings dealing principally with religious, mythological or historical subjects (History painting).

In the work of the seventeenth-century painters Claude Lorraine and Nicholas Poussin, the landscape background began to dominate the history subjects that were the ostensible basis for the work. Their treatment of landscape however was highly stylised or artificial: they tried to evoke the landscape of classical Greece and Rome and their work became known as classical landscape. At the same time Dutch landscape painters such as Jacob van Ruysdael were developing a much more naturalistic form of landscape painting, based on what they saw around them.

When, also in the seventeenth century, the French Academy classified the genres of art, it placed landscape fourth in order of importance out of five genres. Nevertheless, landscape painting became increasingly popular through the eighteenth century, although the classical idea predominated.

The nineteenth century, however, saw a remarkable explosion of naturalistic landscape painting, partly driven it seems by the notion that nature is a direct manifestation of God, and partly by the increasing alienation of many people from nature by growing industrialisation and urbanisation. Britain produced two outstanding contributors to this phenomenon in John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. The baton then passed to France where, in the hands of the impressionists, landscape painting became the vehicle for a revolution in Western painting (modern art) and the traditional hierarchy of the genres collapsed.