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.” 

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