What is a landscape?

Historical Perspective


Anonymous, Sea Landscape (before 79 CE), fresco, 42 x 72 cm, originally from the Villa at Boscoreale, Italy, Musée du Louvre, Paris. By Marie-Lan Nguyen, via Wikimedia Commons.

Landscapes are a way of looking at our world.  Their form is familiar and easily understood.  The earliest landscapes can be found in Chinese and ancient roman art.  The form seems to have been lost for a long period and then rediscovered at the time of the Italian renaissance.


Pieter Bruegel der Ältere – Landschaft mit der Flucht nach Ägypten (Landscape with the flight to Egypt)

National Geographic has this to say:

“The term comes from the Dutch word landschap, the name given to paintings of the countryside. Geographers have borrowed the word from artists. Although landscape paintings have existed since ancient Roman times (landscape frescoes are present in the ruins of Pompeii), they were reborn during the Renaissance in Northern Europe. Painters ignored people or scenes in landscape art, and made the land itself the subject of paintings. “

The content defines a Landscape

An interesting thought arises from this description.  A landscape is the background without the portrait.

The picture above is a landscape.  However it is merely the background from a more famous painting that is regarded as a portrait.


One is a landscape the other is a portrait.  With the exception of Lisa Gherardini they both contain the same content.  The presence of the person turns this landscape into a portrait.  I guess the landscape is just a painting of the geography.  The lie of the land.

What do photographers think?  Photography tips.com has this to say:

“A landscape is a section or portion of scenery as seen from a single viewpoint. Scenery is the subject of a landscape image. Typically, people and animals are not shown in a landscape, unless they are relatively small in the image and have been included in the composition to show scale. Some photographers argue that the sea coast, the city and man-made structures in general should not be included in a landscape, and images that do contain them are more accurately called seascapes or cityscapes. From a purist perspective, they are probably correct, since a landscape is a picture of the land and its aggregate natural features. However, if natural scenery dominates an image, it can probably be accurately termed a landscape, even though there may be a farmhouse in the distance, a city skyline on the horizon or a road or path in the foreground.

The term “Urban Landscape” describes photographs of the city taken in the manner of a landscape, using buildings and other man-made features as graphical elements of composition that are treated in the same way the photographer would treat mountains and trees.”

The landscape is characterized not only by its subject matter, but also by its composition.  What is the focal point.  Where is the eye led?  What is the subject of a landscape?  Is it the sea, the rock arch or the cloud or the foreground rock ledge?  Landscapes don’t necessarily resolve into a single subject.  They are an entity unto themselves.  The various components complement each other to create an overall whole.  If anything the eye is lead around the landscape and ends up at the horizon in the distance.  Perhaps a landscape is defined by the horizon.  There are some landscapes that exclude the sky.   That is true, however even these pictures retain a sense of recession that implies a horizon out of the frame.

Importance of the Horizon
“The concept of the horizon is important to different types of work, including aviation, navigation, and art.
Before the introduction of modern tools such as global positioning system (GPS) devices, sailors depended on a clear view of the horizon to navigate the ocean. The sun’s position to the horizon told sailors what time of day it was and what direction they were sailing.
At night, sailors could use celestial navigation, or the appearance of certain stars or planets relative to the horizon. As the Earth turns, stars and constellations rise and set on the horizon, just like the sun. Different constellations appear at different times of the year, or are only visible from certain places. The rising of the constellation of the Southern Cross, for instance, signaled that sailors were in the Southern Hemisphere.
Artists use the concept of the horizon to create perspective in paintings and drawings. When depicted with shapes getting smaller and less detailed closer to it, a horizon can create the illusion of depth on a flat canvas. “
It may not be coincidence that the painting of landscapes in the Italian Renaissance  followed the discovery of perspective.   masaccio-tribute-moneyThe first known picture to make use of linear perspective was created by the Florentine architect Fillipo Brunelleshi (1377-1446).   Painted in 1415, it depicted the Baptistery in Florence from the front gate of the unfinished cathedral.  The linear perspective system projected the illusion of depth onto a two dimensional plane by use of ‘vanishing points’ to which all lines converged, at eye level, on the horizon. Soon after Brunelleshi’s painting, the concept caught on and many Italian artists started to use linear perspective in their paintings.
Key concept: Perspective lines converge at a vanishing point that will sit on the horizon.  The landscape feeling of a picture is created not only by the subject matter, but also that sense of recession into the distance, towards an endless horizon.

Is this a Landscape?

Even abstract art can obey rules of perspective to create a sense of depth.  Is this an abstract landscape?
Minimalism may strip an image of many of the clues that give depth or perspective.  Is it possible to have a minimalist landscape?

Picture Source – Wylie Creek Mouth Jamie Paterson

What about Aerial photography?  Is an aerial photograph a landscape?  It represents an area of topography as an abstract mixture of textures and blocks of colour.  It has no horizon and often does not demonstrate depth or perspective.  Is it a landscape?  It has the subject mater, but not the depth.  It looks more like a map. By my definition it would fall just short of being a landscape.

It all depends upon how you define a landscape.

Here is the definition in Wikipedia:

“A landscape is the visible features of an area of land, its landforms and how they integrate with natural or man-made features.  A landscape includes the physical elements of geophysically defined landforms such as (ice-capped) mountains, hills, water bodies such as rivers, lakes, ponds and the sea, living elements of land cover including indigenous vegetation, human elements including different forms of land use, buildings and structures, and transitory elements such as lighting and weather conditions.”

By this definition it is the subject mater that counts and so an aerial photograph and the minimalist pictures are landscapes and the abstract painting is not.  That feels to be intuitively correct.


Famous landscape photographers

  • Ansel Adams
  • William Henry Jackson
  • Carleton E. Watkins
  • Charles L. Weed
  • Gustave Le Grey
  • Benjamin Brecknell Turner
  • Mary Randlett

Final Word

I love this exploration of ideas.  Sometimes it is key to the creative process to understand the core concepts.  Many a great artist has created in order to challenge the established pattern of thought and to test the boundaries.    When photographing a landscape, what is more natural than to ask, “what is a landscape?” and “what makes it work?”  There is likely to be some fertile ground there.  I hope that this discussion has been useful.