Today, as perhaps never before, landscape painting is claimed to be owned by the in plein air painters. Even at the height of the Impressionist era, or before that with the Barbizon painters, I doubt that there was any such volume of painting being done on location as there is today. And in large part, the legions of artists painting out of doors today have reinvigorated what had become a rather tired, unappreciated area of art during most of the twentieth century. Once Impressionism began to fade in the earliest years of the century, it was as if artists had better things to do, as if they had mined the mother lode of nature to the point of insignificant returns. Indeed, as Modern art turned more and more inward, or became interested only with the inward trappings of the human condition, the landscape was seen as largely irrelevant.
Yet past centuries of painters were often quite expressive of what has been termed "the human predicament" through the art of landscape painting. Today, we often think of landscapes painted from photographs as being the exact opposite of in plein air landscapes. Actually, that's not the case. Though purists would argue this point to death, a landscape painted by a competent artist from a photo is virtually indistinguishable from one painted by the same artist outdoors. No, the exact opposite of the in plein air landscape would, instead, be what art historians call the "heroic landscape." The French landscape painter Pierre-Henri Valenciennes explained it like this. He urged landscape painters to first read the classics, absorbing and meditating upon the words of the great poets before then closing their eyes and imagining an ideal scene of natural beauty. Then they should observe nature and be disappointed by its haphazard, randomness, its imperfections, its limitations, its meanness, and ugliness. Whereupon they should return to their studios and paint upon their canvases the inner beauty of their visions, freeing themselves from the minute truths they may have observed in favour of greater, universal truths evolving from nature. Valenciennes offered his View of the Ancient Town of Agrigento, painted in 1787 as an example of such artistic idealism.
Valenciennes wasn't the first or the last to see landscape painting in such a manner. He was a follower of Nicholas Poussin who, himself, was a follower of Claude. But it was Poussin who, in large part, perfected the heroic landscape as a standard against which all other such painting was measured, at least until well into the nineteenth century. His Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion, painted in 1648, is an excellent example. The work is based upon a story from Plutarch's Lives which details an account of a Greek general, Phocion, who was unjustly condemned to death, his body cremated. His wife secretly gathered his ashes and took them to Athens, waiting for a change in the political climate, whereupon they might receive an honourable burial. Such a noble endeavour, depicted within the idealised harmony of nature as only Poussin could conceive it, imbued the landscape with a presence beyond the mere representation of nature in the raw, granting it a timeless quality appropriate to the timeless heroism of human nature.
It might surprise some today, but Paul Cézanne was also a follower of Poussin. This might seem especially strange in that Cézanne undoubtedly knew or cared little about ancient literature and in fact, very often painted out of doors. In doing so, he was undoubtedly influenced by the Impressionists, but he was also at odds with them throughout much of his life. Anyone who has ever studied Cézanne’s seemingly endless series of Mont Sainte-Victoire landscapes would confirm that they are, indeed, heroic. And very much like Valenciennes suggested, Cézanne seems to have closed his eyes very often as he painted and visualised the ideal over the natural. A sense of distillation prevails. An intense concern with composition and design dominates Cézanne’s nature. Shapes are repeated, details are omitted, and the powers of observation are subdued in favour of the paint and painting itself and its more universal qualities as art. Though their works look nothing alike, Cézanne bore a kinship with Poussin in the internalisation of the landscape, not in pursuit of any spirit of human nobility as seen through nature, but nobility as seen in the landscape painting itself.