The Landscape Tradition

"Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together."
John Ruskin

The rich and lively tradition of American landscape painting is alive and well in the 21st century. Today, many artists are looking to the work and techniques of the 19th century to discover both a way back to beauty and a way forward for landscape painting in this century.

The 19th century artists of the Hudson River School, the first truly American style of painting, and the Tonalist artists who followed them, were influenced in large part by ideas that gained currency in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century. 

The idea of artists working outdoors from Nature has been so completely associated with the late 19th century Impressionists in "popular" art history, that many don't know that working outdoors was actually a well established practice by the late 18th century. That way of working included both watercolor and oil sketching, but also emphasized drawing as a first step to learning to paint the landscape . It is to this pre-Impressionist tradition that many contemporary landscape painters are returning for guidance and understanding.

 In Europe, by the late 18th century it was common for artists from many countries to head to Italy for a year or two to sketch the landscape. This was considered a sort of "graduate work" for aspiring history painters and others. There were "guide books" for artists describing a sort of tour of ancient sites and ruins that were recommended sketching grounds. Artists would return to their studios with drawings and sketches which would be used for years to come to craft landscape backgrounds for history and religious scenes.

The young Corot, who would become one of the most celebrated landscape painters of the 19th century did several tours of duty in Italy, (starting in 1825) producing some beautiful plein air work- including over 200 drawings. Corot became a member of the Barbizon School of landscape painters who frequented the Forest of Fontainebleau, near the village of Barbizon. Artists in this group included Theodore Rousseau, Jean Francois Millet, Francois Daubigney, Jules Dupre and Constant Troyon.


This group was influenced by the work of the great English landscape painter John Constable, whose work was exhibited at the Salon de Paris in 1824. Constable's honest, naturalistic paintings of the landscape had a profound effect on the course of landscape painting in France for the remainder of the 19th century- a great irony since Constable was always underrated in his own country during his lifetime. Constable and the French Barbizon painters embraced the idea of portraying the landscape in a more realistic, less idealized way. In this, they broke with the tradition of a neoclassical approach to landscape, seen as an idealized backdrop to the more important subjects of history, allegory and religion. Constable and the Barbizon painters revolutionized the entire idea of landscape and its place in the hierarchy of painting. They paved the way for everything that followed, including the Impressionists in France, and the Hudson River School and Tonalists in America.

John Constable

In America, the Hudson River School artists like Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole and Asher B Durand (1st generation) and Sanford Gifford and John Kensett (2nd generation) followed the process of working in the field, drawing for the most part, to gather reference for larger studio works. This first school of American landscape painting was much influenced by the writings of John Ruskin, an an English writer, teacher and artist. Ruskin advocated "truth to Nature" rather than an idealized mode of expression. He advised young artists to make close studies of Nature's forms and to begin their studies with a rigorous apprenticeship in the field.

Thomas Cole

The Hudson River School artists also reflected the optimistic pre-Civil war view of America as a land of limitless beauty, bounty and opportunity. Artists traveled westward with those exploring and documenting the new lands and enormous vistas of the American West. The idea of the Sublime in Nature was of paramount importance to this style of painting. These artists celebrated the unique American landscape.

John Kensett

Sanford Gifford

After the Civil War, the Hudson River School style fell out of favor. The optimism it represented gave way to a more melancholy view of our new nation. In the 1870s a new style of painting arose which reflected the mood of post-Civil War  America.

The common view of Tonalism is that it was a late 19th century reaction to the "grand" style of the Hudson River School- that the view of nature as Sublime and the conventions of that style- big dramatic views of the more awe inspiring elements of Nature- were rejected for a more intimate, transcendental view of Nature and style of depicting it. Tonalism marked a desire to reconnect with the landscape on a more intimate footing and a search for the spiritual in Nature. Both the aesthetic and intellectual underpinnings of Tonalism resonate in our time as well.

George Inness

Charles Warren Eaton

Tonalism also represented a complicated confluence of academic and realist threads of painting with a romantic/naturalist approach adopted by many landscape painters in the 19th century. They were tying up many disparate threads of influence - the realist approach was reflected in the desire to depict the more ordinary, intimate corner of Nature; the romantic impulse was the desire to evoke emotion by painting particular times of day; the optical method was reflected in the favored effects of light and atmosphere; and the tonal/knowledge based approach was reflected in choice of palette, attention to drawing, and deep connection with subject matter.