Neoclassicism (1700-1800)

This period in art history was about a return to the classic themes of ancient history, but with the newer techniques and the higher education of the artist taking the lead role. In the realm of painting, it was about creating perfect and ideal images which could take the viewer’s imagination back in time. It was not about historical accuracy but rather about creating mythological views of old stories with a modern perspective. This style of ‘looking to the past’ enjoys periodic resurgences with a current trend in modern architecture going towards this style. Not all art in the 1700s followed this style, but it was an important theme.

Giovanni Paolo Pannini (1691 –1765) Italy

Pannini is best known for his impressive cityscapes of Rome and his interior work. His paintings and murals decorated palaces and government buildings, and that’s how he made most of his income. He influenced many generations of Italian painters after him.

Panini,_Modern_RomePicture gallery with views of modern Rome, Giovanni Paolo Pannini (1759)

This is a summary of neo-classicism in a single image! It’s unclear whether a place like this actually existed in real life, but it sure is impressive. Similar views have been painted including one earlier in this book, so it’s quite possible. Here, Pannini shows off his virtuosity by painting numerous paintings within a single large work. Compositions within compositions are common in today’s landscape photography. Sometimes you may see examples of abstracts or extracts of landscapes in the form of a rock surrounded by flowing water, or a well lit tree against a granite cliff. What you can do in a grand landscape photograph is look for these smaller extracts and combine them into a bigger view. To pull this off, you need to have good light throughout the entire scene. So, that rock and tree must fit in well into a bigger landscape, much as each painting above fits into the bigger gallery.


Pantheon-paniniInterior of the Pantheon,Giovanni Paolo Pannini (year unknown)

This is a great example of how to photograph the interior of a large building. Notice the light coming through the famous opening at the top and how it illuminates the interior with reflected light. Pannini painted this scene looking through his own eyes of course, and the human eye can see much greater dynamic range (white to black) than a camera. Therefore a scene like this should probably be photographed using HDR, or High Dynamic Range processing. This is where you take a number of exposures from too dark to too light and combine them into one properly exposed picture. There are many great books on HDR so have a look at them if you wish to learn more about this topic. See the high-resolution version of this painting!


Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697 – 1768) (Canaletto) Italy

Canaletto, is famous for his highly accurate cityscapes. In his later works, he used a camera obscura, to project an image of the desired scene onto a canvas where he would sketch out the scene onto paper in reverse, then transfer it to the canvas to create the final painting. Many other painters also used a camera obscura to assist in the initial sketches so they could complete the paintings indoors.

Canaletto_The_Stonemason's_Yard_1726-30_Oil_on_Canvas_National_GalleryThe Stonemason’s Yard, Canaletto (1729)

Notice the near photographic composition and perspective of this painting. It’s possible he used a camera obscura to sketch out this composition although this is an early work. The light spreads out across the foreground as well as the background buildings with a shady area in the middle. This creates a feeling of depth and realism. Also, this painting is unusual in that it’s an early example of a fine art painting of a working class area of town. A noble man would never be seen here! This shows how a humble subject can be turned into a fine work of art via the creative vision of the artist. In a landscape or cityscape photograph, don’t hesitate to experiment with unusual subjects and perspectives or industrial areas of town.


Canaletto_-_The_Grand_Canal_and_the_Church_of_the_SaluteThe Grand Canal and the Church of the Salute, Canaletto (1730)

This location could be photographed today and might look much the same as it did in 1730! The angle of light across the wall below the dome allows a great amount of detail to be seen. In a cityscape photograph, you don’t need the dramatic light of sunset for the best effect. It’s best to study the angle of light and use it to your advantage.


Canaletto_londonLondon: The Thames and the City of London from Richmond House, Canaletto (1747)

Again, the photo-realism in this painting is incredible. There’s so much detail that the viewer can spend plenty of time looking at every detail. Notice the fine railings along the edge of the river and how the tallest buildings in town are the church and cathedral steeples? And again, he used a sharp angle of light to give depth to the people in the foreground.


Canaletto_(II)_017La Piazza San Marco, Canaletto (year unknown)

Canaletto was a master of the cityscape. The angle of light is perfect and it goes in between the multitude of columns to let us see into the buildings and imagine the interiors. He positioned himself so as to see between the buildings and out to the ships in the harbor. As with most of Canaletto’s paintings, he doesn’t rely on the warm light of sunset but rather what appears to be late afternoon light. This scene also looks the same today, though it’s often flooded.


Francois Boucher, (1703-1770) France

Boucher combined the techniques learned from several masters of painting with his love of the classics of literature. Although he didn’t paint landscapes in the traditional way, his use of atmosphere and the landscape in his backgrounds created stunning images which were integrated into a new style called Rococo. This style allowed architecture, wall art, sculpture, furniture and everything else to be seen as a single enveloping environment for the upper class and royalty.

BoucherFrancois_EuropeThe Rape of Europa, Francois Boucher (year unknown)

This is the third example of this common theme of Europa in this series so far. From a landscape perspective, Boucher used openings in the clouds to cast strong and warm light on his subjects. This is something which can be employed to great effect in a landscape photograph. Look up and watch the clouds pass by, and try to anticipate when a hole in the clouds will allow the sun to illuminate your subject. This subject could be a tree, a hill or anything you wish to highlight. It’s incredible how a beam of light can change the entire feel of a photograph. In this painting it appears as though there may be an opening in the clouds to the left of the frame, allowing light to strike the characters in front. And the entire landscape seems natural because of similar openings in the clouds in the sky.



Richard Wilson (1714 – 1782) Wales

Richard Wilson was an important innovator and is considered to be the father of a rich tradition of landscape painting in Britian. He inspired the likes of Turner and Constable and was inspired by Claude Lorrain and others. He didn’t rely on color or intense light but rather on soft complementary tones which suggest depth and distance. Unfortunately, as of this writing there are few photos of his works in the public domain.

Wilson-avernusLake Avernus, Richard Wilson (1765)

This is good example of a painting by Wilson where he used a gradual softening of tones to produce depth. Notice how the foreground is clear and full of contrast while each successive hill becomes more and more soft in tone? Atmosphere and humidity are important factors in showing depth because that’s how the eye processes and determines how far away an object is. Since a canvas is only two-dimensional, photographers and painters must use all of the tools at their disposal to create a sensation of the three-dimensional depth we experience every day.


Claude Joseph Vernet (1714 –1789) France

Claude Vernet is yet one more reason to visit the Louvre in Paris, where many of his works reside. He was a keen observer of nature and had an incredible ability to capture extreme atmospheric moments and make them look truly natural. Few painters in history were able to integrate the sky, light, rock, sea, ships, and people as well as Vernet. Simply looking at his paintings might assist viewers in viewing the natural world in a new way.

Shipwrec-vernetShipwreck, Claude Vernet (1759)

The sun almost explodes off the canvas just as powerfully as the waves destroy the ship and its crew. This is a classic example of the power of the sea and of the sky overwhelming humanity and putting us in our place in the world. The best landscape photographs are often examples of the raw power of nature and often have no figures in the photo at all. They can leave the viewer transfixed. Vernet has noticed many elements of nature and included them in a way which enhances the drama for the viewer. Notice the rays streaking through the darker clouds, the light on the people to the left, the distant ship in the blinding light, the birds in the sky, and the castle in the upper left? There’s something of interest in every part of the canvas. Think of that viewfinder as your canvas. Try to place something interesting in every part of the canvas.


La_nuit_un_port_de_mer_au_clair_de_luneThe Night; a Sea Port by Moonlight, Claude Vernet (1771)

Vernet uses two sources of light to create two main places of interest to attract the viewer’s eye before it wanders off to explore the rest of this superb canvas. He doesn’t use the rule of thirds since the fire is in the lower right corner and the moon is midway between the top and bottom. Everything happens in the bottom half of this view. In this case, rules are meant to be broken! Vernet was smart to include a large area of darkness at the top because it makes the heaviness of the night feel more immediate and real. Darkness feels that way. Then the moon cuts through the intense darkness so well, people can carry on with their work and play almost as though it’s daytime.

The frame is an important part of any painting and can be important in a landscape photograph too. This simple but beautiful frame is bright and it enhances the feeling of darkness within it. It’s like looking through a window into a dark night. Be careful when framing your work however, because even if a frame enhances your work, it may not go well with a viewer’s wall. Sometime it’s best to show your work with no frame at all. In short, keep an open mind about framing. Every situation will be unique.


Shepherd-vernetShepherd in the Alps, Claude Vernet (1788)

As with all of his works, Vernet has points of interest scattered throughout the entire canvas. He uses a portrait orientation to show light descending from the highest points to illuminate the hills and foreground. When photographing the landscape, don’t forget to try a portrait orientation on views with vertical perspective. Even on views which look good with a landscape perspective, you can still get interesting vertical photographs. Do both!


Thomas Gainsborough (1727 –1788) England

Thomas Gainsborough enjoyed creating landscape paintings more than anything else. However, an artist must pay the bills so he made his living painting the portraits of royalty and the well to do. He did an incredible job of it. Some of the subjects in his life-size and larger canvases seem so life-like, you get the feeling they are looking right at you. He showed the humanity, personality and even humor of each person he painted. If you wish to photograph people or weddings in natural environments, study the works of Gainsborough and other masters and learn to create your own visions.

Since he enjoyed the landscape, he often posed and painted his subjects in the landscape with the wind blowing their hair and clothing so as to create an extra impression of realism and vitality. When he had the free time, he created some of England’s most memorable landscapes, often showing peasants and cottages in a pleasing and idealistic way. It went along with the sensibility of the times where the rich could then relieve their conscience and say the peasants enjoyed their simple life even if in reality, it was harsh and cold in their little cottages. Still, Gainsborough was perhaps the first painter to show peasants as real people who were just as human and worthwhile as the nobility.

There are no high quality photographs of Gainsborough’s cottages in the public domain, so buy a book or search out the internet for these amazing paintings!


Gainsborough-HarvestWagon-1784The Harvest Wagon, Thomas Gainsborough (1784)

This is an example of a difficult life being portrayed in an idealistic way. Despite the struggles of bringing the harvest to market, the peasants all look attractive and healthy. Reality was probably different, but these people look enterprising and noble. The landscape is rich and full of warm light with a nice winding path through it with an open view in the distance. In a landscape photograph, it can be important to show a vanishing point leading to a mountain or other point of interest. This lets the eye wander along so the imagination can be set free.


Thomas_GAINSBOROUGH-The_Marsham_ChildrenThe Marsham Children, Thomas Gainsborough (1787)

Even though these are children of nobility, Gainsborough chose to paint them at play in a natural, almost rustic setting. He loved the landscape so much, he included a lot of greenery with a bit of sky at the top. The light he used is soft and realistic. In any landscape painting, or landscape photograph, light is the foundation. This will be mentioned a dozen more times in this book and can never be overemphasized!


Thomas_Gainsborough_-_View_in_SuffolkView in Suffolk, Thomas Gainsborough (1755)

This is a classic composition with the pond and activity in the lower left third and the bright cloud in the upper right third with a nice open view up the left side. The winding path starting at the bottom invites the imagination of the viewer to travel up to the house in the upper-right side, where there is a elevated view of the open land in the distance through the trees. The water acts as a second path for the eyes to follow. See if you can get two pathways into a landscape photograph. It isn’t easy! See if you can get people and animals into the correct places in your photograph. That also isn’t easy.