The picturesque landscape and scenic travel

European landscape painting

Until the seventeenth century landscape painting was limited to creating a rural background for other representations such as portraits. At that time, an interesting work of art ought to be inspired by historical, mythological, or religious themes from the Bible or the Classical Antiquity. Moreover, art academies assigned the depiction of nature and countryside a low ranking in their classifications of genres.

After 1600 landscape as a subject in itself gained a prominent position in the work of French painters such as Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) en Claude Lorrain (1604/5?-1682). However, their landscapes remained very stylized and somewhat artificial.


This in contrast with the work of contemporary Dutch painters as Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Jan van Goyen (1596-1656), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Jacob van Ruisdael (1629-1682) and Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709). Their fields, streams and woods are painted so faithfully that the viewer would like to step into the painting and take a walk in the fresh nature. These types of canvasses met the taste of the elite in the already highly urbanised west of the Dutch Republic (i.e. the region Holland), who found the sight of the countryside a welcome change from life in the city.

The travellers. Meindert Hobbema, 1622? National Gallery of Art, Washington.
The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede. Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, c. 1668-c. 1670. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Farms and villages. Holland's countryside in the 17th century. 1:50 min; 640x480 px; larger view in seperate page.

In the seventeenth century, there was lively interest in paintings and prints of the countryside, particularly in the highly urbanized western part of the Netherlands.

The consumer demand (mostly of wealthy merchants) could be met, partly thanks to artists who fled north during the siege of Antwerp by the Spaniards. Among them was Hans Bol (1534-1593), from Mechelen, who not only made oil paintings of landscapes but also watercolors and engravings.

The Amsterdammer Claes Jansz Visscher (1587-1632) made rural scenes of farmsteads and the surrounding countryside. He owned his own printing house in which he printed not only landscape etchings but also geographical maps. Jan van de Velde (1593-1641), whose father, a calligrapher, also came from Antwerp, made a large number of prints of Haarlem. His engravings were often based on drawings from nature, which gives us the feeling of being able to take a look at the muddy villages and stroll past the dilapidated farmhouses that must have characterized the countryside at that time.

The concept of picturesque

Should we call this scenic depiction of landscapes also picturesque? In everyday speech, words such as ‘charming’, ‘quaint’, ‘scenic’ are quite synonymous with picturesque, but this term got a special meaning about 1790. Picturesque is derived from the Italian pittoresco, which means ‘worthy of being included in a picture’, ‘after the manner of painters’. The term became an aesthetic category in late eighteenth-century Britain, where it provided a conceptual framework with which to view actual landscapes.

Modern Dutch has two words as translations for picturesque that are more or less synonymous: pittoresk and schilderachtig (painter-like), but the second is a lot older than the first and initially it had a slightly different meaning. Only in the nineteenth century did their meanings coincide. Carel van Mander (1548-1606), a painter and author of the Schilder-boeck (a series of biographies of painters preceded by a theoretical introduction) uses the word picturesque in various ways, including as an indication of gentleman's behaviour worthy of a painter: polite and well-mannered. When it relates to work of art it often means: depicting a subject from life, undisguised, unembellished, colourful, varied, characteristic. Picturesque in this sense could also refer to the work of other artists such as goldsmiths and writers.

A more precise meaning of picturesque was formulated by the British clergyman, amateur painter and author William Gilpin (1724-1804). He defined it as halfway between two other prominent aesthetic categories: beautiful (smooth, regular, orderly, serene) and sublime (vastness, enormous, awe-inspiring). For him, it referred to that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture. Picturesque was particularly characterised by roughness in the various shades that this word has. Such a landscape had a variegated surface, an alternation of light and shadow, a variety of colour and no regular or linear elements, in short it was irregular:

I use the general term roughness; but properly speaking roughness relates only to the surfaces of bodies: when we speak of their delineation, we use the word ruggedness. Both ideas however equally enter into the picturesque; and both are observable in the smaller, as well as in the larger parts of nature – in the outline, and bark of a tree, as in the rude summit, and craggy sides of a mountain.

Gilpin, Three essays, p. 6

William Gilpin. Print by George Clint (after painting by Henry Walton), 1805. British Museum, London.

But the picturesque was not so much regarded as a property of the landscape itself, but also as something that the viewer himself should create in his mind. About 1800 a lively debate arose, especially between two theorists, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, about whether picturesque was an objective property of the landscape (Price’s point of view) or a subjective way of seeing of those connoisseurs whose artistic taste had been shaped by the art of painting (defended by Knight).

The picturesque became a widely accepted way of looking at nature, but not everyone agreed with this fashionable trend. This is made clear in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a novel about the love and romance of the Dashwood sisters. With this title it was published in 1811, but the narrative might be much earlier conceived, about 1795, as the story of Elinor and Marianne.

One of the main characters in the book Edward Ferrars, who is in love with Elinor, admits in a discussion with her sensitive sister Marianne, that he does not share the fashion of the picturesque:

Edward returned to them with fresh admiration of the surrounding country; in his walk to the village, he had seen many parts of the valley to advantage; and the village itself, in a much higher situation than the cottage, afforded a general view of the whole, which had exceedingly pleased him. This was a subject which ensured Marianne's attention, and she was beginning to describe her own admiration of these scenes, and to question him more minutely on the objects that had particularly struck him, when Edward interrupted her by saying, “You must not enquire too far, Marianne: remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars…

… I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower, – and a troop of tidy, happy villages please me better than the finest banditti in the world. (chapter XVIII)

The picturesque also had a great influence on English gardening style, particularly stimulated by the Price’s publications. In contrast to the formal, rectilinear French garden architecture, nature was given much more freedom and only guided in the required direction. Nature had to be imitated in the inhabited area: stately homes got a surrounding park in English landscape style. In the open field, the landscape itself could easily meet the picturesque concept through the typical combination of nature and cultivation and the division of land into separate pieces by hedge-rows and groves.

Picturesque travels

Gilpin was also the promoter of the picturesque tour and recorded his own travel experiences in books that could serve as an art travel guide for others. It started with his boat journey down the river Wye in 1770, of which he made a travelogue which he illustrated himself with drawings and watercolours. This work appeared in print in 1782 and heralded the start of British picturesque tourism. Moreover, he gave detailed instructions in his books on how to record picturesque impressions with simple drawings to be able to relive the aesthetic feelings once at home.

Proof illustration to William Gilpin's Picturesque Scenery on the Banks of the Wye.Aquatint by Francis Jukes after William Gilpin, 1782. British Museum, London.
A Gothic ruin beside a river or lake, mountain in the background Brush drawing in grey wash. William Gilpin, c. 1739-c. 1798. British Museum, London.
The picturesque tour as satire

A pleasure trip only to view the picturesque and not for serious purposes was often derided by contemporaries as a feminised mode of travel. This was further reinforced by the emphasis on aesthetic and feeling. It also gave rise to satire. About 1800 the London book and print publisher Rudolph Ackermann succeeded in gathering a talented group of artists, which included the very productive illustrator and caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827). He came up with the imaginary figure Dr. Syntax, a travelling schoolmaster, for whom Gilpin and other art theorists were used as a model. Rowlandson first made the drawings and then the writer William Combe (1742-1823) produced text in poetry form. These adventures appeared in instalments in one of Ackermann's magazines and were later published in book form. In the first series Dr. Syntax made a picturesque tour on the back of his faithful horse Grizzle: The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque.

The schoolmaster does what Gilpin had suggested and made sketches of interesting points of view, but also experienced unpleasant incidents such as highwaymen who robbed and tied him, a chase by a bull that forces him to climb a tree and a fall backwards into the water while drawing a castle ruin. Even in the pouring rain and approaching thunderstorms, he still wants to capture the beauty of a lake, and has to be pointed out by a passing farmer that this is fruitless artistic labour and that he would be better off taking shelter in a nearby inn. These comical and often absurd adventures were well received by the general public and the series proved to be a great success, prompting Rowlandson and Combe to send Dr. Syntax on even more tours.

Dr. Syntax stopped by highwaymen. Illustration in W. Combe (1903). The tour of doctor Syntax in search of the picturesque, with thirty-one coloured illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson (new edition), p. 12. Methuen.
Dr. Syntax sketching the lake. Illustration in W. Combe (1903). The tour of doctor Syntax in search of the picturesque, with thirty-one coloured illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson (new edition), p. 105. Methuen.
The picturesque far away

Of course the picturesque was not limited to the British Isles and the art connoisseurs there. Gilpin did not invent the picturesque, but he combined, expressed and systematised more or less widespread aesthetic ideas that also gained momentum elsewhere on the continent. The Grand Tour was an educational journey for the English elite that took them through France, Germany and Switzerland to Italy. Along the way they passed through picturesque regions in France and marvelled at the Alps before visiting well-known cultural cities such as Rome, Venice and Florence. Conversely, tourists came to England to see the picturesque with their own eyes, particularly in Wales after the road network there was significantly improved about 1760.

In France, Richard's Guide classique du voyageur en France et en Belgique was quite popular, written pseudonymously by the journalist and historian Jean-Marie-Vincent Audin (1793–1851). The edition of 1834 contains 40 references to picturesque. It contains a separate part Voyage pittoresque dans les the départments, ou déscriptions des curiosités naturelles de France.

James Holman in old age. Maull & Polyblank, albumen print, c. 1855. Wikimedia Commons.

But Western Europeans also travelled much further afield, to the Balkans and Russia to explore the beauty of the landscape. Most impressive are James Holman’s (1786-1857) wanderings, a former lieutenant of the British Royal Navy, who had become completely blind as a result of an illness, but nevertheless had the courage and energy to make formidable journeys to distant lands. During the years 1822-1824 he travelled through Prussia, Poland, Russia, and Siberia and in his travelogue he mentions various places with a "picturesque appearance".

"At eight o'clock in the evening, I pursued my journey to Cazan, thinking it preferable to travel during the cool of the night. By this arrangement I was no loser in other respects, as I was just as well able to make my observations on the face of the country as in the day time; and as to the picturesque, I am willing to relinquish this point to some future Dr. Syntax; this I do with the less regret, as during the earlier part of my life, I saw enough of the sublime and beautiful to enable my imagination to create the most delightful pictures at pleasure; I shall not, however,attempt to delineate these ideal representations, which, I apprehend, would scarcely excite the same interest in the minds of m y readers."

Holman, Travels through Russia etc., p. 345

But with his travels through Russia Holman was certainly an exception. Scenic tourism started relatively late in Russia and had to be stimulated by the government. About 1800 Russians viewed their vast country as a relatively boring, monotonous plain that had no particular aesthetic appeal. That country was certainly linked to national pride, but not an attractive destination for tourists.

The Russian countryside in the 19th and 20th century. 4:11 min; 1280x960 px; larger view in seperate page.

Although the Volga had always played an important role in culture, folklore and folk songs, and was considered a special characteristic of the Russian territory, tourism on and along the river only started in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1865 the first travel guide was published which drew attention to the scenic beauty of the river and in the mid-1870s regular passenger boat services were established.

It was not until around 1890 that the picturesqueness of the Volga was fully recognized in travel guides and in journalism and Volga travel had actually come into fashion. The aesthetic qualities of this area were also expressed in painting, such as in the works of Repin and Levitan. The picturesque had thus reached the outer limits of what was then Europe.


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