Ways of seeing the world: The relationship between subject and object

In last week’s post, I tried to summarize the study of phenomenology and its potential uses in landscape architecture. As mentioned, the study of phenomenology in history has covered varying perspectives relating to experience, ranging from the materiality of what we face everyday to larger existential questions of ourselves and the cosmos. We can apply phenomenology to anything we want because it is a way to understand the details and essences of being in the world. While philosophers have tried to put their own theories together to explain different aspects of phenomenological experience, understanding phenomenology, particularly in an equally vague subject such as landscapes, is rather difficult as a structured and empirical method. Nevertheless, one way to organize experience is to distinguish the relationship we take in the perception between subject and object. Simply, we perceive using one of these approaches:

  1. A one directional relationship from subject to object
  2. A bi-directional relationship between subject and object
  3. A diffusion of subject and object
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Ways that subject and object can be related in perception. (Image by https://poignantlandscapes.wordpress.com/)

Broadening our approach to perceive the world is beneficial regardless of whether it is intended for landscapes, another profession, or life in general. The subject to object approach is conventional. The scientific method allows things and events to be studied and understood as complex and objective elements. Similarly, landscapes are studied as objects. Yet, this focus is sometimes even forgone due to external pressures such as politics, finances, and individual concerns. Occasionally, there is an endeavor to take this study earnestly. In better landscape designs, the reciprocal relationship between subject and object is considered. These landscapes can express through their own language, creating dialogues between place, designer, and user. In the best designs, landscapes are no longer objects; they not only speak for themselves but also bring awareness to the users, not as mere perceivers but as part of a greater existential world.

The way we perceive is not easy to decipher. Traditionally, phenomenologists have tried to reject the subject to object approach to perception. The approach is dualistic, rational, and anthropocentric. However, most of the processing of our world through experience is ongoing in this mode. This is the way that the modern world operates. We cannot deny it because it is not the “better way” to experience the world. Husserl’s phenomenology may ask to bracket out pre-conceived biases and assumptions, but every experience does indeed lead to an objective understanding, judgement, and analysis of the world. Seeing landscapes as a creation of sociopolitical power, a picture image, or a series of patterns are characteristic of the subject to object approach to experience. When we look at landscapes as sensory and emotional effects, landscape matter, although distinctly objective, become part of a balanced relationship with the perceiving subject. Finally, when the whole of landscape, rather than its material and immaterial components, gains authority and voice, the subject and object distinction is blurred. When landscape is seen as archetype or as existential order, the objectification of landscape is eliminated. (I will be writing more about this through physical case studies and Chinese landscape painting in the future.)

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Taxonomy as a subject-to-object approach to understanding the natural world. (Image source: Palaeontologyonline.com)
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Subject and object reciprocates: “To touch the coarse skin of a tree is thus, at the same time, to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. And to see the world is also, at the same time, to experience oneself as visible, to feel oneself seen” – David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous, p.68. (Image source: Shutterstock) 

Social conventions can make us bias towards certain ways of perceiving; biases towards ways of perception can also affect the way places are designed, giving the impression that better places are those that can appeal to a limited approach to perception. This sounds contradictory and does not make sense. While not every landscape design needs to be an existential lesson, a conscious awareness to the subject-object relationship should be brought to a common ground. Designers have the potential to trigger these different ways of seeing in the world in what they create, but first they need to see the potentials themselves.

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Diffusion of subject and object in the Zen garden. (Image source: thespiritscience.net)

Introduction to phenomenology (for landscape architecture studies)

After exhausting all the posts on landscape art and imagery, I have come to a point where despite my reluctance, I should introduce the topic of phenomenology. I would have loved to skip this post altogether and go straight into details of theories, archetypes, case studies, Heidegger, etc., but that would be confusing and defeating the purpose of bringing philosophy together with landscape architecture.

I never majored/minored in philosophy and am also a picture-person, so reading philosophy books (or truthfully, most theory books) make me feel like this:

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Image Source: TORCH Alumni Network

Nonetheless, with what I understand consciously, what I absorbed by “osmosis” in my studies, and with the help of the internet, here is my attempt to simplify and parcel the ever-elusive topic of phenomenology as it relates to landscape.

Phenomenology is such a difficult and abstract topic to define. Depending on the branch of study, phenomenology can be described as different things. Etymologically, it is the study of phenomena. However, it seems like anything can be a phenomenon. Then, perhaps phenomenology is the study of everything? Well, it is and it is not. A phenomenon is something that happens, appears, and is something we are somewhat concerned about. Therefore, under these considerations, every-thing can be a phenomenon if we consider it as one. The common factor is that phenomenology is about experiences, or more precisely, the objective study of subjective experience, or the scientific study of phenomena as they appear before us. There is a paradox here, as experience is always subjective but the investigation aims to be objective. This paradox, however, is what keeps phenomenology a mystery and a fascination.

I consider the following ideas as the simple historical/philosophical context behind phenomenology (as relevant to my scope of study):

René Descartes (1596-1650): “I think, therefore I am.” Human subjective existence is “proven” because of our ability to think.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): “There is nothing higher than reason.” As human beings, we have a set of cognitive faculties that are fundamental to knowledge and being. Things exist: as they appear (phenomena), and as they are themselves (noumena); we can never know about noumena because the world exists through our minds.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831): “The history of the word is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” All reality is part of an absolute (knowing, idea, spirit) and is understood by a self-identity and consciousness.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938): “To the things themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to see things in themselves (as opposed to Kant’s inaccessible noumena) by bracketing experiences (i.e. the phenomenological reduction) to eliminate preconceived knowledge, assumptions, judgements, etc.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976): “Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being.” Humans have a pre-ontological understanding of being in the world (i.e. Being) because of having been “thrown into the world.” Existence is through experience embedded in language, thoughts, and practice.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961): “The body is our general medium for having a world.” Perception is an embodied experience. We understand ourselves in context by our bodies. There is an entangling (i.e. chiasm) between bodies of things that reciprocates, producing “flesh” or phenomenological experiences.

So why does this all matter to landscape architecture?

While phenomenology can cover everything and anything, how is it relevant to landscape architecture? For starters, if phenomenology is the study of experience from the 1st person perspective, then it means that everyone’s experience is unique. A phenomenon can appear for one person while it remains invisible for another. Similarly, a landscape can be beautiful, productive, special, worthy, magical for me, but it may not be for someone else. However, perception is malleable. My main objective for phenomenology in the context of landscape architecture is to trigger broadening perceptions. Areas where phenomenology is particularly relevant in landscape design include:

  • The body and spatial experience
  • Experience and consideration of the material world (both living and non-living things)
  • Understanding of place, in relation to time (cycles of material life, cycles of nature, historical narratives) and memory (including collective memories)
  • Perception of aura and atmosphere
  • Awareness of assumptions and prejudices of experience based on personal upbringing, social conditioning, political contexts

Broadening our field of vision, allows for greater possibilities both in the design and appreciation of landscapes (and life in general…). By opening and shifting the way we perceive, we can literally make things that were once invisible visible; make things that were always the same seem different; see with more depth; and effectively, create and experience more magic!

The Phenomenon of Landscape as an Image

It is almost strange that this blog has the sub-title “phenomenology and design,” and yet I have barely talked about phenomenology or design. In fact, I spent 9 weeks talking specifically about 19th century European art, and the weeks prior, looking at broad philosophical inquiries of the meaning of landscape, place, nature, and being human etc. One of the reasons for this is that I’m actually a bit disoriented in the mystery of landscape phenomenology and still trying to figure out my direction in it. The other reason is that from a contemporary Western worldview, the idea of landscape as image cannot be dissociated from landscape as experience. To understand our relationship with landscapes today, it is pertinent that we unravel its formation.

For me, the simplest definition of phenomenology is the study of phenomena as experienced from the 1st person perspective. Despite Husserl’s phenomenology of bracketing experience, there is only so much one can bracket in real life experience. The way we perceive is inevitably affected by culture, knowledge, personality, and intentions. Although most phenomenologist traditions have tried to reject the Cartesian subject-object view of the world, it does not change the fact that, conventionally, the modern world does operate in this way. What occurs is that every experience leads to an objective understanding, judgment, or analysis of the world. Seeing landscape as image would not be described as a traditional phenomenological approach to interpreting landscapes, but it is a predominant way that perception occurs.

Aesthetics, the judgment of beauty, like other judgments of worthiness in the public sphere is a political process. According to Kant, a judgment of beauty is also the application of a subjective judgment towards the universality of other people’s judgments.1 That is, when we judge something as beautiful, we believe that others should pass the same judgment towards the same object. Landscape has acquired through historical and cultural construct a common impression of beauty. In a way, the idea of landscape is already a pre-judgment of beauty,2 which was learnt from the history of Western landscape painting, particularly as landscape paintings became associated with various aspects of society, including status, pleasure, passion, and spirituality.

In addition to its origin in art, landscapes continue to be connected to imagery because of the dominance of vision in modern society. Since the development of perspective in the Renaissance, Western art has portrayed landscape as static, visual representations. What is seen is objectified and reproduced through the mind into the hand. With the invention of photography in the mid-19th century, the process is further simplified. Before needing to objectify landscape in the mind, the camera already does the work. With the invention of film, the experience of spatial movement, something that is not static, can be visualized as a series of still images like the frames of a motion picture. In effect, we are at a point where snapshots are so convenient that every experience is a potential photo image (e.g. Instagram)!

The landscape image as conceptual colonization or agent of change?

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Quote from Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, 2015, Art Gallery of Ontario.

At the 2015 Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, I snapped an image of the above quote on the wall. Acknowledging the truth in the statement brings about certain feelings of guilt and dilemma. I am fascinated by the landscape image (from painting to photography) and do not plan to let my enchantment of it to disappear. While there is danger in the image, accepting the predicament, understanding the intent of the image, and learning that there are more to landscapes than images are ways to move forward.

Today, the media chooses a lot of what landscape images are worthy to be considered beautiful. From tourism to environmental activism, each industry has their own agendas to market images of beautiful landscapes. The attitude of nature photography has not departed much since the time of the Romantics. When major environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, emerged in the late 19th century, nature photography expanded its role from recreation to advocacy. Artists such as Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and Eliot Porter (1901-1990) aimed to bring the divinity of nature, articulated in its materiality, to the viewer through the effects of photography.

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Ansel Adam, Roaring Mountains, Yellow Stone National Park, 1941, US National Archives and Records Administration. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Influenced by theosophical philosophies,3 Adam’s photographs brought the spirituality of nature and human experience into the material world through landscapes. Alternatively, Porter, reinterpreted the mysteries of nature photography with the use of colour.

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Eliot Porter, Birch Trees on Cliff, 1963, Gift of Joseph French and John Wawzonek. (Image Source: International Center of Photography)

Through the art of photography, the viewer perceives more to nature than what was apparent before. Whether it is through faithfulness to the divine, or strategic visual persuasion, the image has the power to change the perception of a landscape and its fate. The landscape image has been used for specific agendas, and often times, for positive change. Whether it is a painting or a photograph, the image is powerful. As architect Juhani Pallasmaa states:

A profound artistic image projects a sense of rootedness, completeness, life and magic. It speaks with the authority of an entire life-experience. It short-circuits our faculties of rational understanding and feeling, as well as the categories of life and knowledge, reality and dream, beauty and meaning.4


1. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. by James Creed Meredith, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, [1790] 1952).
2. T.J. Diffey, “Natural Beauty without Metaphysics,” in Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts, eds. by Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 42-64.
3. Anne Hammond, Ansel Adams: Divine Performance, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 14.
4. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Embodied Image: Imagination and Imagery in Architecture, (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 57.

The paradoxical landscape: Romanticism in modern landscape art (France 1850-1900) – part 4

See part 1; See part 2; See part 3

Nature as Mystic Wonder and the Commodity Fetish

The last paradox that I will be discussing in modern landscape art is the idea of nature as both mystic wonder and commodity fetish. From Monet’s Train in the Countryside, nature can be seen as something that could be controlled, manipulated, and usable as a resource through the course of modernity in 19th century France. During the previous era of Romanticism, nature was often portrayed with the awe of the sublime. Nature in that sense was seen as uncontrollable, unpredictable, and had elements of horror. The sublime represented the human as a diminutive element in comparison to the grand forces of nature. In comparison, landscapes of the latter half of the 19th century portrayed a relationship between human and nature that was more intimate and comfortable. Instead of the fear of nature, whatever was left of the sublime in nature became a mystified source of curious wonder.

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Théodore Rousseau, The Rock Oak (Forest of Fontainebleau), 1861, Private collection. (Image source: WikiArt)

The ancient forests of France were popular subject matter for French artists. Forests covered approximately one-seventh of the area of France during the mid-19th century, much of which date back to ancient Gallic times.1 The Forest of Fontainebleau near Paris was the most popular. Théodore Rousseau loved to paint the old ancient oaks at Fontainebleau. His painting The Rock Oak (Forest of Fontainebleau) portrays the forest in an ancient state, gnarled and contorted, and covered in colourful mosses. Although the forest was already a popular tourist site at the time, Rousseau chose to conceal all signs of modernity. His forests are described as “a closed, self-contained world into which light barely penetrates and in which there is no sign of human presence.”2 The mix of colours, small brush strokes, and the contrast of glows and shadows create an enchanted forest image. The painting, which was exhibited at the Salon in 1861, was described by critics as “a block of copper ore”, a “mosaic”, or “a needle point tapestry.”3

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Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Peña, The Approaching Storm, 1872, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (Image source: FineArt-China.com)

Also set in the Forest of Fontainebleau, Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Peña’s The Approaching Storm blends the powers of nature with the rustic countryside image. The storm, which was commonly portrayed in Romantic paintings, is portrayed here in the rocky plains of the Gorges d’Apremont at the Forest of Fontainebleau.4 Unlike the traditional Romantic sublime, which embodied horror and distress, there is no element of fear in this painting. A single peasant who is going about his daily life is barely visible at the centre of the landscape. He is not bothered by the impending storm, but rather in perfectly harmony with the rugged terrain of the natural landscape.

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Gustave Doré, Deer in a Pine Forest (Vosges), c.1865, Carnegie Museum of Art. (Image source: Blouin Art Info: Modern Art Notes)

Gustave Doré’s Deer in a Pine Forest (Vosges) is a painting that depicts the enchanted forest in a mystified way. The image of the small deer inside a towering pine forest, illuminated by a gleam of light is fairytale like. Doré, who was a book illustrator, portrayed the magic and mysticism found in nature. The painting is romantic not in the traditionally sublime or picturesque, but romantic as a fantasy, where nature is the imagined world in contrast to the everyday modern life.

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Adalbert Cuvelier, Effect of Fog, 1852, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (Image source: Impressionist France, Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet by Simon Kelly and April Watson)

The enchantment of nature can also be found in landscape photographs. Not only was the Forest of Fontainebleau a popular place for painters, photographers such as Gustave Le Gray and Eugène Culvelier also found the ancient trees worthy to photograph. To further enhance the atmospheric quality of photos, the technique of photolithography allowed increased control over tonal differences. The photolithograph Effect of Fog, photographed by Adalbert Cuvelier and printed by Alphonse-Louis Poitevin, captures the “ephemeral nature of fog” through dimensionality of image densities.5

Not only did nature in landscapes represent the anti-modern ideal of rural France, it also became the modern citizen’s image of the healthy alternative to the hectic and unhygienic lifestyle of the city. Instead of the untouched and pristine nature that Rousseau and Diaz wanted to represent, the image of the countryside signified nature for the city dweller. When this nature became a symbol for the city dweller’s place of refuge, it also became a commodity. The diorama, which provided life size landscape images, brought “the countryside into town” according to Walter Benjamin.6 Although one could not experience this nature, one could immerse in it visually; perhaps more importantly, it could be controlled.

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Claude Monet, Wild Poppies at Argenteuil, 1873, Musée d’Orsay. (Image source: WikiArt)

With the advancement of the railway, travelling to the countryside also became more convenient. Nature tourism in France became a popular past time for the city dweller. Similar to the flâneur of the city, walking about in the countryside was a common activity. When nature became the health tonic for cities, people came to recognize the countryside as a place of leisure. Strolling, walking, and water sports were popular activities in landscapes. Analogous to the “painter of modern life” in the Parisian boulevards, the modern artist also observed, experienced, and recorded the recreational life of the countryside. Impressionists such as Monet, Renoir, and Caillebotte painted many images of these types of activities. Instead of peasants of the pastoral ideal, human figures in the paintings were modern men and women in refined landscapes. For example, Monet’s Wild Poppies at Argenteuil shows a lady and a child casually walking through a field of poppies in the countryside. Caillebotte’s Richard Gallo and his Dog Dick, at Petit Gennevilliers shows a man and his dog as the focus of a leisurely stroll in a suburban landscape. Another of Caillebotte’s paintings, Canoes on the Yerres displays visitors in recreational activity. All of these paintings were created from the viewpoint of a participant or a close observer. Compared to traditional landscapes, we are no longer viewing the panorama at a distance. Humans and the landscape are in a new kind of relationship, an imagined harmony as seen from the perspective of the modern human. Unlike the power of nature and untouched landscapes, these landscapes are tame, unchanging and serviceable in the eye of the tourist or recreationist.

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Gustave Caillebotte, Richard Gallo and his Dog Dick, at Petit Gennevilliers, 1884, Private collection. (Image source: Gopixpic)
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Gustave Caillebotte, Canoes on the Yerres, 1877, Milwaukee Art Museum. (Image source: Peabody Essex Museum Blog, Connected)

Conclusion

When modernity conspicuously overtook France in the 19th century, the mental construct of landscape was shaped to echo the ironies of modern life. The landscape images from the 2nd half of the century especially embodied the paradoxes of modern/anti-modern values. While images of the modern cityscape, infrastructure, and industry portrayed the “rational” side of modernity, landscape images that stressed traditional aspects of nature, expressed what could be called as the romantic yearnings of the modern world. While romanticism is often sidelined as merely sentimental, a notion that is inferior to rationality and the calculative nature of modern progress, it is romanticism that makes the duality of modernity possible.

A narrow worldview would associate modernity with spontaneity, objectiveness, commodity, and industry, while romanticism would be associated with eternity, subjectivity, mystique, and the nostalgic pastoral. However, we have seen that in these landscape paintings these contradictory themes were often interdependent on each other. For example, the relatively new technology of photography was used to capture a moment, preserve an ideal, document a fact, and imagine a montage. In the context of nature, there is the longing to return to a time of greater unity, the desire to preserve a vision of nature as mysterious, and the excitement of nature as a recreational commodity, which is quite ironic because it was progress (in the form of railways, employment, and tourism) that allowed the modern person to even access this kind of nature. For the artist, no matter how affected by objectivity and empirical methods, the expression of individuality remained the most crucial of purposes.

Even today, these contradictions remain in our current images of landscapes and modernity. We still see images like Fields in the Month of June as the romantic anti-modern past that we wished modernity did not destroy. At the same time, an image like Canoes on the Yerres is not unusual for the contemporary person; you may even have a similar photograph from past vacations. Through ads of wines from luxurious vineyards and jams from country farm orchards, tourist postcards and wonders-of-the-world calendars, travel brochures and photo blogs, the romantic image of landscape is continuously fed to us, triggering this dualistic side of our modern lives. We may not produce the same type of images of the French in the 19th century, but we do experience the similar paradoxical predicaments when encountering the landscape image today. And that is because the landscape image captures much of our modern doubts as well as our anti-modern dreams.


1. Simon Kelly and April M. Watson, Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet, (St. Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2013), 146.
2. Ibid, 148.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid, 154.
5. Ibid, 172.
6. Walter Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century (1935)” in The Arcades Project, trans. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999), 6.

The paradoxical landscape: Romanticism in modern landscape art (France 1850-1900) – part 3

See Part 1

See Part 2

Nostalgia of the Pastoral and the Industrial

Landscape in the second half of 19th century France was perceived as two polar images: the rural and traditional countryside versus the advancing modern and industrialized nation.1 While landscape art sometimes portrayed one or the other vision, often images were a combination of both the rural and the developed. Consequently, the pastoral and the industrial could be found in single images. Nostalgia played a prominent role in these types of images, either representing the longing for a simpler life of the past when one was perceived to be more in harmony with the environment, or dreaming of a present modern life that could bring a new type of harmony within society and lifestyles.

Unlike the paintings of the Romantic period that depicted emotions of humanity’s awe, fear, and melancholy in the face of cosmological nature, the landscape image of the modern era expressed more intimate and nostalgic feelings. Since nostalgia is often associated with the concept of belonging and returning home, one can presume that the nostalgia represented in the modern landscape images was towards a yearning to return to the past landscape that the French symbolically held in their imaginations as their true home. Pastoral images of idyllic fields where peasants quietly lived their lives were images from this end of the gamut of nostalgia.

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Charles-François Daubigny, Fields in the Month of June, 1874, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Many of Charles-François Daubigny’s paintings depict the anti-modern agricultural lifestyle of rural French peasants. Fields in the Month of June is a good example of this pastoral landscape image. Deduced to be set near the town of Auvers, which was northeast of Paris, the painting depicts peasants busy collecting hay in the background amidst the foreground of a field of blooming red poppies.2 The scene is set at daybreak with the moon still visible within a colourfully tinted sky. The feeling expressed is one of serenity and simplistic beauty, with no signs of the modernity found in the busy city nearby. Critics at the time were moved by the painting, viewing it as patriotic and symbolic of the precious agricultural landscape of France: “Nothing resembles our country more than this productive plain and nothing offers a better idea of our resources than this apologia for agriculture.”3 Fields in the Month of June was exhibited at the 1874 Salon and the 1878 Exposition Universelle.

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Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Le Chemin de Sèvres, Vue de Paris, c.1865, Louvre Museum. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot’s Le Chemin de Sèvres, Vue de Paris shows a nostalgic countryside landscape in a different way.   The scene takes place in suburban Paris following the road from the Sèvres hilltop leading to the metropolitan city seen far off in the distance.4 Although the paved road in the painting is a sign of modernity leading to the modern city, the figures in the painting are transporting by foot and donkey. Many of Corot’s paintings use similar compositions: lone peasants along a path by foot or horse within a hillside landscape, overlooking a far off horizon. This composition creates a feeling of solitude and prospect. On one hand, Le Chemin de Sèvres is idyllic and rustic, but on the other hand, it is not the nostalgia of looking backwards; the peasants and the viewer are all figuratively looking forward towards modernity.

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Paul Gauguin, Washerwomen, 1888, Museum of Modern Art. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Gauguin’s Washerwomen portrays the peasant worker in yet another manner. His scene is up-close unlike the picturesque portrayal of peasants in landscape in Daubigny and Corot’s paintings. Gauguin moved away from the realistic painterly method by using a stylized illustrated technique of crisp lines and bright colours. However, his content retains the nostalgic archetype of the traditional peasant woman. Similar to Giraudon’s photographs of the peasant women at work, the figures in Washerwomen represent a traditional ideal of humankind in nature: humble, hardworking, and harmonious. Like Washerwomen, Gauguin’s series of paintings of the Breton landscape also depict the traditional peasant woman in work or in leisure within the stylized pastoral landscape.

In contrast to the anti-modern countryside landscape, some artists embraced the marks of modernity in their art. The romanticism found in the natural world is unexpectedly displaced by the industrial. The modern artist’s vision in the modern city landscape can be revealed through Charles Baudelaire’s description: “He gazes at the landscape of the great city, landscapes of stone, now swathed in mist, now struck in full face by the sun.”5 In comparison to the countryside landscape, concrete buildings replace foliage in the city; smog from the smoke stacks replace the mist of the morning dew; the same sun shines on the landscape, but the atmosphere is different. Baudelaire’s quote aptly complements Claude Monet’s famous Impression: Sunrise, the iconic painting that represents the modern era, the subjectivity of Impressionism, and the acquired romanticism of the industrial landscape.

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Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Musée Marmottan Monet. (Image source: Wikipedia)

Many Impressionists, including Monet, celebrated modernity and depicted modern infrastructure in their landscape paintings. Ports, bridges, and train tracks were common elements in modern landscape paintings. Often these paintings would utilize the same picturesque quality as the pastoral anti-modern images, creating dialectical images of modernity as progress and nature as idyllic. Camille Pissarro’s The Oise near Pontoise and Monet’s Argenteuil, the Riverbank in Flower are two examples. Both paintings noticeably show the polluted smoke from the industrial stacks in the background in juxtaposition with the riverbank flowers blooming in the foreground. If The Oise near Pontoise and Argenteuil, the Riverbank in Flower are paradoxical views of modernity, Monet’s earlier painting Train in the Countryside can be seen as a welcoming of modernity. The painting reveals a train filled with passengers merging into a lush background of foliage in contrast with the green fields where leisurely tourists saunter in the foreground. The image portrays a new type of harmony between modern life and nature that has been intervened by humans.6

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Camille Pissarro, The Oise near Pontoise, 1873, Clark Art Institute. (Image source: WikiArt)
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Claude Monet, Argenteuil, the Riverbank in Flower, 1877, Private collection. (Image source: WikiArt)
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Claude Monet, Train in the Countryside, c.1870, Musée d’Orsay. (Image source: Wikimedia commons)

1. Simon Kelly and April M. Watson, Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet, (St. Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2013), 16.
2. Ibid, 204.
3. Quoted by Jules-Antoine Castagnary, Ibid.
4. James H. Rubin, Impressionism and the modern landscape: productivity, technology, and urbanization from Manet to Van Gogh, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 23.
5. Charles, Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, eds. by Vassilike Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 105.
6. James H. Rubin, Impressionism and the modern landscape, 98.

The paradoxical landscape: Romanticism in modern landscape art (France 1850-1900) – Part 2

See Part 1: Introduction; Landscape beauty as both eternal and spontaneous

The artist as the objective and subjective observer

Romanticism was characterized by a need for individual expression. The individual’s way of feeling, in the form of emotions that emphasized one’s relationship with nature, allowed the landscape image to become an emblem of Romantic art. Gradually, the nature described through the landscape image became idealized at a personal and collective level for modern society. As European societies progressed into the 19th century, individual reason and objectivism increasingly displaced the subjectivity of individual feelings.

In “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” George Simmel compares the mental processes of a rural inhabitant to a city dweller in response to environmental stimuli.1 The modern city dweller is described as one who emotionally detaches from his or her surroundings because of over-stimulation from environmental variances. As a result, he or she needs to remain rational and objective. The modern city dweller requires his or her own private space, physically and mentally to compensate. In contrast, the small-town dweller is more in sync with his or her senses and emotions, almost performing at an unconscious level. In many ways, the modern landscape artist embodies both of these mental processes: the objectivism and rationality of the city dweller and the emotional sensory functioning of the small-town inhabitant. On one hand, the artist is the objective observer, but on the other hand, the artist is the individual who expresses his or her own subjective experiences. This duality is particularly critical for the city dweller who travels to the rural environment for the artwork’s subject matter. The artist who practices modern objective reasoning on a daily basis now adjusts his or her rationality to the context of nature. Modern landscape art represents the relationship with nature in the dualistic consciousness of the modern person.

The dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity is quite evident in Impressionism. The Impressionist is at first a rational observer, perceiving and understanding the way a picture works: how colours in vision intermingle together when encountering a specific light, and how movements and energies of people relate in their environments. However, the Impressionist is not a imitator; the paintings created are self-expressions that are undeniably subjective.

Gustave Caillebotte, known for his realistic photo-like paintings, was highly influenced by the objectivism of the camera lens. His paintings often reflect the compositions of photographs with purposely-cropped borders, precise perspectival compositions, and special attention to detail. He was particularly interested in the specificity of the human figure during movement. While he took the role of an impartial observer, his paintings resembled vignettes of scenes found in daily life. There is enough ambiguity in the scenes to question whether the original source is imaginary or reality. His Père Magloire series: Père Magloire on Saint-Clair Road to Etretat, Père Magloire on the Road between Saint-Clair and Etretat, and Père Magloire, the Nap are perfect examples of this vignette-like representation. The paintings depict a labourer through the lens of a documentary reporter, showing the man neither working nor in the context of the worksite, but instead leisurely in idle harmony with the local landscape.2 Schrader describes the series as a paradigm for the Impressionist’s value of nature:

the dramatic landscape of Normandy with its steep coastline, houses rising in the background and perched precariously close to the abyss, and the breathtaking view of the sea give expression to an entirely different state of mind and transform the Père Magloire series into a paradigm for the Impressionist concept of the unrepeatable subjective impression of nature and the feeling of unity with it.3

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Gustave Caillebotte, Père Magloire on Saint-Clair Road to Etretat, 1884, Private Collection. (Image Source: The Ark of Grace)
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Gustave Caillebotte, Père Magloire on the Road between Saint-Clair and Etretat, 1884, Private Collection. (Image Source: The Art of Grace)
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Gustave Caillebotte, Père Magloire, the Nap, 1884, Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneva. (Image Source: Jeanne Fadosi Blog)

While the vignettes of Magloire inspire curiosity in the viewer, the labourer’s peaceful harmony with his idyllic surroundings also reveal Caillebotte’s ideals of nature. Similarly, the idealism of nature can be found in many Pointillist paintings. Considered as a Neo-Impressionist style, Pointillism built upon the Impressionists’ technique of short brush strokes. Using small dots of colour in equivalent values, Pointillism experimented with colour composition in a rational way. The technique is essentially observational in form and style. In fact, Paul Signac proposed that the style be called chromo-luminarist, as it resembled how varying lights combine together to produce brilliance in the optical process.4 Although quite scientific in principle, Pointillists such as Paul Signac, Georges-Pierre Seurat, and Camille Pissarro expressed their anti-modern romantic subjectivity in their paintings’ contents. Many of their paintings depict industrial elements within pastoral or idyllic contexts. Signac’s The Bois-Colombes Railway Junction and Pissarro’s The Dieppe Railway, Eragny-sur-Epte supposedly reveal railway scenes, yet the modern implications of the railway are restrained by the emphasis of tranquil landscape settings found in the tree hedgerow and rolling hills. Similarly, The Bridge at Courbevoie by Seurat mixes elements of industry with the modern harbor, showcasing a landscape that is leisurely and serene rather than demanding and progressive.

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Paul Signac, The Bois-Colombes Railway Junction, 1886, Leeds City Art Gallery. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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Camille Pissarro,  The Dieppe Railway, Eragny-sur-Epte, 1886, Private Collection. (Image Source: The Web Gallery of Impressionism)
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Georges Seurat, The Bridge at Courbevoie, 1886, Courtauld Institute of Art, London. (Image Source: WikiArt)

1. George Simmel, “Metropolis and Mental Life,” in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, eds. by Vassilike Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 52.
2. Kristen Schrader, “In Praise of Idleness,” in Gustave Caillebotte: An Impressionist and Photography, eds. by Karin Sagner, Max Hollein and Ulrich Pohlmann, (Munchen: Hirmer Verlag, 2012), 213.
3. Ibid.
4. James H. Rubin, Impressionism and the modern landscape: productivity, technology, and urbanization from Manet to Van Gogh, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 154.

The paradoxical landscape: Romanticism in modern landscape art (France 1850-1900) – part 1

This is another series on the landscape image in European art. After exploring landscape paintings during the age of Romanticism, in the next few posts, I will be going through modern landscape art in France in the period between 1850-1900. While Romantic landscape paintings in the early 19th century contained a mixture of individualism, faith, and science, French landscape paintings in the latter half of the 19th century embodied more of a dualistic, paradoxical view of nature and everyday life – something that is characteristic of modernism itself.

The first thoughts that come to mind about modernity are ideas of progress, technology, and a new way of life. These ideas seem rather contradictory to the modern concepts of landscapes that suggest uncontaminated nature and feelings of pre-modern life. However, it is the irony of modernism that creates this seeming contradiction. Transformation results in confusion, fear, and anxieties. Marshall Berman suggested that “[t]o be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction.”1 Furthermore, “to be fully modern is to be anti-modern…it has been impossible to grasp and embrace the modern world’s potentialities without loathing and fighting against some of its most palpable realities.”2 Romanticism was an anti-modern movement. But if the prerequisite for modernity is to both embrace and loathe the so-called progress of society, by the circumstance that Romanticism is an antithesis to modernity also makes it a modern concept in itself.

Although the Romantic period ambiguously merged into classical modernity by the second half of the 19th century in France, the essence of Romanticism never ceased in landscape art. Rather, landscapes resonated with the ironies of modern life: sentimental and idealized perspectives of nature and pre-modernity in contrast with the progress of modern industry, technology, and commoditized values. Landscape art of this period was both innovatively modern and intuitively anti-modern. Infrastructural developments such as railways, roads, and bridges, as well as technological innovations such as photography and electricity changed how people viewed their lives in practical ways. The mental image of landscape was reflected in art. Aside from the works of John Constable, landscape paintings did not become major Salon exhibit features until mid-century.3 However, the landscape image became popular in paintings and photography by the 1860s, and became a symbol of modern innovation as Impressionism took over in the 1870s.4

Impressionism was viewed as a style of revolution and novelty. To James Rubin, Impression gave birth to modern landscape art for its “marks of modernity” and its non-traditional technique.5 However, I would say that modern landscape art at this time was more retrospective than it seemed. While some landscape images embraced modernity, some were completely anti-modern, and some exemplified both conditions. I will further examine the following dualistic relationships found in these landscape images: 1) landscape beauty as both eternal and spontaneous, 2) the artist as the objective and subjective observer, 3) nature as mystic wonder and commodity fetish, and 4) nostalgia of the pastoral past and the industrial present. While not every modern landscape image is arguably a dialectical image, the concept of landscape as represented through modern French art is certainly a dialectical representation of modernity itself.

Landscape Beauty as Both Eternal and Spontaneous

Landscape is often associated with beauty. The beauty of landscapes, particularly in the Romantic ideals of the sublime and the picturesque are inclined towards the notion of eternity. However, nature is ever changing. French landscape art of the later 19th century reflected this combination of eternality and spontaneous beauty. In “The Painter of Modern Life,” Charles Baudelaire expressed the idea that absolute beauty is always a combination of both the eternal and the circumstantial. This duality is expressed through the artist: “In the most frivolous work of a sophisticated artist…the duality is equally apparent; the eternal part of beauty will be both veiled and expressed, if not through fashion, then at least though the individual temperament of the artist.”6 Similarly, the modern landscape image brought out the extremes of beauty through intent, technique and style. At the core of the landscape image is the attempt to eternalize, either to preserve a particular moment in time or to present an everlasting ideal.

The desire to establish a national image through the French landscape encouraged landscape paintings in the mid-19th century to adopt realistic styles. During the reign of Napoléon III (1851-1870), promoting the history of France became an important state policy. The State sponsored photographic records of medieval ruins, archaeological excavations and regional poetry traditions. Napoléon III also purchased and commissioned many landscape paintings, accounting to close to 20% of all State acquisitions.7 When the empire was overturned by the Third Republic in the 1870s, landscape images at the Salon returned to stability, order, and representations of rural communities that were rich in history.8 Sometimes, signs of modernity were purposely edited out of the image, rendering nature as pristine, untouched, and timeless.

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Élodie La Villette, The Shore of Lohic and the Ile des Souris, near Lorient – the Sea Stretches Out, 1875, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon. (Source: Scan from Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet by Simon Kelly and April M. Watson, 2013)

Élodie La Villette’s The Shore of Lohic and the Ile des Souris, near Lorient – the Sea Stretches Out is a landscape that depicts a sparkling harbor with rough cliffs, empty of all commercial and industrial activity that actually existed nearby.9 The scene was an idealized landscape, painted with illusory authority and realism. In turn, the idealized landscape solidified an eternal image of what the French landscape may have looked like, or should have looked like according to the State, regardless of changes due to modernity. The effect of realism in painting was influenced by the popularity of photography at the time. While daguerreotypes and early photography were widely used for portraiture, cityscapes and landscape photography quickly became popular in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Photography can be seen as a medium of contradictory elements. On one hand, it captures a particular moment in time, but on the other, it is the permanent record of that particular moment. The photo is both instantaneous and eternal. A photograph captures all the details within the picture frame. As Susan Sontag has stated, “Paintings invariably sum up; photographs usually do not.”10 Because of this circumstance, photographs carry an authority to imply the truth, and the ability to establish evidence of some sort. Walter Benjamin even described the similarity of Eugène Atget’s photographs of modern Paris to “scenes of crime,” “deserted,” and “for the purpose of establishing evidence.”11

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Eugène Atget, Saint-Cloud, 1924, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Because photographs have to the ability to imply truth and reality, they carry the implication of objectivism. However, photographs from the very beginning were not always used as permanent records for truth. Often photographs were staged to portray imagery of a long-standing ideal. In many cases, both photographs and paintings can manipulate the viewer’s belief of reality. Photographs commissioned by the Parisian publisher Adolphe Giraudon embodied this dichotomy of traditional ideal and authoritativeness. The photographs, which were taken by an anonymous photographer, depict a series of female peasants performing rural rustic activities.12 While these photos were meant as stock photos for artists’ studies, the use of photography almost solidifies the myth-like truth of the staged photographs. Two Female Peasants, One Standing, Doing Laundry show two female peasants doing laundry outdoors in an idyllic setting of rural France. The image offers a nostalgic rendering of peasant life as pure, simple, and in tune with nature. This is the image that many of the French society wanted to retain. Similar to La Villette’s untouched harbour that portrays the pre-modern image of nature, this photograph portrays the romantic pre-modern image of life itself. The nostalgic image of peasant women was a common theme in French modern landscape art, established as a symbol of the eternalized archetypal ideal of the unspoilt past.

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Adolphe Giraudon, Two Female Peasants, One Standing, Doing Laundry, c. late 1870s, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. (Source: Scan from Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet by Simon Kelly and April M. Watson, 2013)

The concept of pseudo-documented permanence represented by common ideals can be contrasted with the aspirations of other modern French artists. These artists desired to document spontaneity through personal responses with the environment. The essence of Impressionist art carried this desire. Impressionism was a movement that developed as a reaction to the classic, realistic techniques of earlier styles in painting. The Impressionists desired to record a spontaneous response to nature that was both an objective documentation of the external world and an internalized interpretation of the world.13 The examination and articulation of movement, colour, and light played a big part in the paintings, emphasizing the capturing of a particular moment in time. While painting instant reactions en plein air was popular in the 19th century, there was still an empirical quality to the approach. Behind the quick brush strokes were carefully constructed images with intended viewpoints and compositions.14 The ideals of the picturesque were not forgotten but instead were updated to modern tastes. Diagonals, treatment of foregrounds and backgrounds, as well as deliberate cropping of views were common in Impressionistic art.

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Ker-Xavier Roussel, Landscape Figure Carrying an Umbrella, 1899, Museum of Modern Art New York. (Source: Scan from French landscape: the modern vision, 1880-1920 by Magdalena Dabrowski, 1999)

Roussel’s lithograph Landscape Figure Carrying an Umbrella is a prime example of spontaneity and composition. Although more likely categorized as a Post-Impressionist, Roussel used limited colours and minimal patterns to record the “impression” of the landscape. The image is composed to allow the viewer’s attention to move to the centre of the pathway where the ambiguous figure of a woman with an umbrella is located. The path blends in with the background and is purposely obscured by the vegetation in the foreground. When comparing La Villette’s painting, Giraudon’s photo, and Roussel’s lithograph, the most obvious of differences are found in the techniques of representation. While changes inevitably occurred over the course of modernity in France, the images retain a sense of romanticism in the expression of the ideal in the beauty of landscape: La Villette’s harbour landscape as an almost imaginary past only to be engraved permanently in an image; similarly, Giraudon’s peasant lifestyle photographs do the same thing; and Roussel’s leisurely countryside marks a moment of individual expression.


1. Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), 13.
2. Ibid, 14.
3. Kathryn Calley Galitz, “Romanticism,” in Heibrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art website, Oct. 2004, accessed Dec. 2014, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/roma/hd_roma.htm.
4. Magdalena Dabrowski, French Landscape: The Modern Vision, 1880-1920, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999), 11.
5. James Rubin, Impressionism and the Modern Landscape: Productivity, Technology, and Urbanization from Manet to Van Gogh, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 2.
6. Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, eds. by Vassilike Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 103.
7. Simon Kelly and April Watson, Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet, (St. Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2013), 19.
8. Ibid, 26-27.
9. Ibid, 27.
10. Susan Sontag, On Photography, (New York: Picador, 1973), 166.
11. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations/Water Benjamin, ed. by Hannah Arendt, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 226
12. Kelly and Watson, Impressionist France, 63.
13. Rubin, Impressionism and the Modern Landscape, 12.
14. Galitz, “Romanticism.”