Renaissance Painting in Europe (1425-1600)

The Renaissance, was a ‘great awakening’ not only for logical thought and scientific discoveries, but also for all forms of art including landscape painting. At the beginning of this period, the main topics for paintings were still religiously based with the landscape serving as a minor backdrop to the story being told. Some other forms of painting were being done, but religious painting and the lessons taught were considered to be the highest form of art. Since the Catholic Church had the biggest pot of money and the largest army in Europe, the Church controlled the artists and their content before the 1400’s. The rapid progression in the quality and quantity of painting after 1400 in Europe is quite startling. Just 100 years before, there were relatively few impressive works being painted compared to the renaissance.

A similar reawakening seems to be happening to landscape photography in this new digital age. The quality and quantity of landscape photos appears to be increasing rapidly because of the ease and versatility of digital capture combined with the learning tools and photo sharing websites found on the internet. Some established photographers are upset, because as the supply of decent images increase, the prices decrease. But such is the nature of change.

Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1497) Italy

Although he was not regarded as being the finest painter of his era on a technical level, he more than made up for it by his creative use of color and non-religious figures and themes which weren’t common in the past. He experimented and pushed the boundaries, and that’s a property the great artists in this book have in common. Many great achievements of the past don’t seem significant today, but when seen from an older perspective, they’re impressive. Even some of Ansel Adams’ photos look commonplace today, though they were ground breakers at the time.

Gozzoli_magiJourney of the Magi, at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, Benozzo Gozzoli, (1459–61)

The perspective here is exaggerated, but Benozzo included lots of new elements in this painting which we see in modern landscape photography. The sky with detailed clouds and the dark forests create a good backdrop for this procession. He was inventive, and this is a good lesson for landscape photographers. Use what you have to the best of your ability. Try to do things which haven’t been done before. (And remember this, there are literally trillions of things which haven’t been done before!)

Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) Italy

Andrea Mantegna was one of the first painters to use a low perspective to make the bigger view seem more impressive. Today, landscape painters can use this to their advantage to create more dramatic images. Mantegna ran workshops, which many photographers do today. Of course, painting workshops were highly complex and took years to complete before you could be considered a master. There were few people with the money to take a workshop just as a hobby. People with money would send their promising children to these workshops and ateliers in the hopes of producing an artist with a lucrative career. Still, most painters were poor, which is a common theme for artists of all types even to this day.

Andrea_Mantegna_036The Agony in the Garden, right panel of the predella of the San Zeno Altarpiece, Andrea Mantegna, (1455)

In addition to the dramatic story unfolding before our eyes, notice how he uses a strong foreground and low perspective to enhance the elevation and position of the distant mountain and the figures in the clouds. A landscape photographer can create an enhanced perspective by keeping the camera lens low to the ground. Most landscape photography seems to be done at eye level on a full-sized tripod, but a high perspective with a wide-angle lens makes foreground objects appear small compared to how they are perceived with the human eye as a person stands at the location. So shorten the legs of the tripod to get down low enough to put some extra drama and perspective into your image.

Andrea_Mantegna-The_Dead_ChristThe Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Andrea Mantegna (1490) Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

Although this isn’t a landscape painting, notice the low perspective and how realistic it seems. If the perspective of view were higher, this painting wouldn’t have the same effect because it would be ‘looking down’ on the scene. We wouldn’t see the wounds on the feet and the viewer would feel more detached. A low view adds realism and impact to a picture, so get close to the interesting foreground so the viewer can come along.

Hieronymus Bosch, (1450 – 1516) Netherlands

Bosch is known for the use of fantastic imagery to illustrate moral and religious concepts. There’s a lot of controversy regarding the meanings of his paintings. Regardless of symbolism and context, it’s certain he used his imagination and knowledge of storytelling to create unbelievably fantastic works of art. Many have compared him to the surrealist Salvador Dali, and indeed Dali studied Bosch’s works. Although storytelling was his main theme, he often arranged his characters in a greater landscape. Study his work online, you won’t be disappointed!

Hieronymus_Bosch_Garden_earthly-delightsThe Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch (1480-1505)

From left to right, these three panels tell the story first of Adam and Eve, then the earthly delights sometimes found on Earth, and finally eternal hell. However, this wasn’t a traditional Bible story. He used different light to set the mood in each panel, with the darkness and fire of hell being where sinners will suffer forever. The lesson landscape photographers can learn here is light and mood can tell a story. Even in the small version of this painting squeezed onto this page, it’s easy to tell where hell resides because of the mood. Landscape photographers can use their imagination to come up with stories and moods based on their imagination. Although the painter can place anything he/she wants on a canvas, photographers have the freedom of composition and choice of time and place to set the mood. Bosch broke tradition to produce the art he wanted, and so can you.

Hieronymus_Bosch_003The upper portion of the left panel of The Temptation of St. Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch (1495-1515)

This scene is happening in a sky of unearthly colors. Bosch’s work shows his boundless imagination. It’s incredible to think that he painted this over 500 years ago. Today his work is becoming popular again because of the surreal nature and almost science fiction theme. He would fit right in on the special effects crew of ‘Star Wars’ or ‘The Lord of the Rings!’ Look up Salvador Dali’s version of “The Temptation of St. Anthony” for a surprise!

Bosch_temptation_st_anthonyThe central panel of The Temptation of St. Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch (1495-1515)

Enlarge this image to see that every character and element of the landscape isn’t what it seems. Hieronymus Bosch was ahead of his time and possibly even ahead of our time! Especially when you think of the conservative art being created in the 1500’s. He was effective at highlighting elements by making them well lit against a dark background. From his time forward, this technique was used and improved in some of the best images ever created. Pure genius!

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), Italy

Leonardo da Vinci was the first painter/draftsman to receive true celebrity status and is often considered to be one of the most complete and diversely talented people to ever live. Although his drawings and paintings are still considered to be among the best ever produced, his talents extended to mechanical engineering, military weapons development, flying machines, solar power, optics, anatomy, and much more. His intellect was in demand by kings and the wealthy and powerful people of his time. He used his knowledge and artistic talent to produce anatomically correct renderings of the human body and the outside world. He showed us that with increased knowledge comes an increased ability to create. If you ever get a chance to see his works in person, do it!

Virgin_of_the_RocksVirgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci (1483)

This damaged early work, now in the Louvre shows his early interest in scenery and the landscape. He used the landscape to dramatically show the traditional religious scene in front of us. He composed the monoliths or rock in the background in between the openings in the rock in the middle ground, and he showed us a bit of the greater landscape beyond. One practical thing to learn here is how to frame things within things. Notice how the distant mountains are framed within the opening of the cave? If you were photographing this scene, you would move around to get those background elements correct before posing the people in front.

Ultima_Cena-Da_Vinci_5The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, (1498)

Unfortunately, Leonardo didn’t paint this as a fresco (into wet plaster), so within 100 years, viewers said it was completely ruined. However, great care has been taken to restore it. Now it’s one of the most reproduced works of art in history. So, the first thing landscape photographers can learn from this painting is you should make sure your prints are comprised of materials which will last for a long time. Find out which inks, papers and other media look good for your work. For this work, Leonardo chose his materials based only on how good they would look at the moment, but this work was almost lost forever. Of course, not every picture you print has to last 500 years, but you should know what materials last the longest. With digital imaging, you can always make another print. The second thing to learn here is how well Leonardo used a vanishing point to convey depth. Notice the perfect symmetry in the lines at the top and edges of this work. If you are doing cityscapes, pay close attention to your lines and vanishing points.

Leonardo-St._AnneThe Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1500)

This is a drawing on paper! It shows Leonardo’s virtuosity with pencil and chalk. Even in his drawings, light and shade are still the most important elements and he shows us how it should be done. This drawing shows us we don’t need the most expensive tools (cameras) to create great works of art. I’ve seen some excellent work using a simple iPhone or Android Phone camera!

DaVinci_mona-lisaMona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, (1503)

Although this may be the most famous painting in history, it’s simple and understated. If you had witnessed it being painted, you might have never imagined the magnitude of its future fame. There’s a mystery to her smile and to the background, which makes the viewer wonder what she was thinking and feeling and what lies beyond in the real world. One of the hallmarks of a great landscape photograph is how the viewer is drawn into the photo to imagine being there. Leonardo was possibly the first painter to draw us in like this. And he keeps us there to this day.

Studies_of_the_Arm_showing_the_Movements_made_by_the_BicepsStudies of the Arm showing the Movements made by Biceps, Leonardo da Vinci, (1510)

Drawings like this show us how important it is to directly study your subjects. So, to create great landscape photographs, it’s also necessary to study your subject. Study how the ocean moves, how the clouds form, how the land erodes and how the seasons affect the landscape. Photograph elements separately and examine them closely. Read as much as you can and then study the elements of a composition directly so you can refine your knowledge and develop your own personal style and vision.


Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) Germany

Albrecht Dürer was a print maker, and painter, who became famous across Europe when he was still in his twenties. He has been regarded as possibly the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance. He was one of the first European landscape artists, and his woodcuts revolutionized printmaking.

Duerer_autoportrait_(1484)Self Portrait, Albrecht Dürer (1484, age 13)

This is a silverpoint work, created by dragging a wire or a sharp silver object across a surface covered in Gesso (white paint) to expose the darker surface underneath. This image shows Albrecht’s virtuosity at a young age. Some artists develop early in life and some later on. The same goes for photographers. Photography provides a level playing field for people of all ages and ways of life. If you’ve been pursuing photography for 2 years, it doesn’t matter whether you are 10 or 90. You are a two year old! While there are issues of mental and physical flexibility to consider, it’s never too early or too late to take up photography and you can become an excellent artist regardless of age. This may be one of the first selfies ever made!

Dürer_Oswolt_KrelPortrait of Oswolt Krel, Albrecht Dürer (1499)

Not only is this painting nearly photo realistic, but you can see the influence of the far-eastern artists in the bit of landscape on the left side. It could be a Chinese landscape, some of which were imported to Europe around this time. Even back then, artists were influenced by and studied the works of others. Yet Albrecht developed a style all his own.

Duerer_(Der_Reuther)Knight, Death and the Devil, Albrecht Dürer (1513)

This copper engraving was state of the art at this time. Despite it being an engraving, he still used light and darkness to enhance the effect of depth and detail. He experimented with many different ways of doing prints and became a master at it, often employing specialized experts to do things he couldn’t do, which freed him to produce more original art.

Today, we have to decide how our prints should be made. If you wish to do cutting-edge sorts of prints, it will take a lot of time and energy, so you have to balance the time you spend between making prints versus having them done by someone else so you can have more time to do your own photography. Ansel Adams in his later life used to spend a lot of time making prints in the dark room, because he wanted to do them himself. However, he often wished he could spend more time making photographs. Also, notice how Dürer signed his work in the lower left hand corner with the year and D for Dürer. Around this time, most artists began to sign their works. This is a good idea even today, and often it’s a good idea to watermark your images (or use metadata) for Internet use.


Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475 – 1564) Italy

Michaelangelo, along with da Vinci and Raphael, became a symbol for the Renaissance man. He was a well-educated and forward-looking man who based many of his opinions on information obtained by scientific fact finding instead of ancient logic or superstition. This is impressive considering many people even today base a large amount of their knowledge and value system on unsupported information. Unfortunately, he had few immediate pupils due to his poor personal hygiene and living habits.

He lived to be 88, which was also impressive for the time and even had two biographies written about him while he was still alive. He was so successful and admired he inspired a whole generation of artists and gave birth to Mannerism, or a highly evolved style. He was an incredible sculptor as well as painter, with his statue of David being one of the most renowned works of any form of art in history.

Unfortunately, he didn’t execute significant landscape paintings. It would be interesting to see what he would have done in this genre!

michaelangelo-cistine_chapelThe ceiling of the Cistine Chapel, Rome Michaelangelo (1508-1512)

This impressive fresco looks like it was done in a traditional way, however, Michaelangelo didn’t always see eye to eye with the Catholic Church, so he made a lot of changes, some of which were approved and some of which were slipped in without the authorities knowing. He even made sure the scaffolding covered up certain things when the authorities were scheduled to do their inspections.

So, what can a landscape photographer learn from this work? We know he worked upside down under uncomfortable conditions, painting into plaster which had to be fresh and wet. Sometimes the best works of art are produced under uncomfortable conditions. Just think about those dramatic photos you’ve seen with lots of storm clouds, beams of light, fog, etc. The worst weather often produces the best conditions. In short, a little suffering often pays big rewards. So the next time you see a storm and wish to stay inside, push yourself to go out into the harsh elements (or at night) and see what you can do.



Albrecht Altdorfer (1480 – 1538) Germany

Albrecht Altdorfer is best known as being the first European pioneer of pure landscape painting. Until this time, most artists made their living from the Catholic Church and its members, which had the money and military power. But times were changing due to advances in the scientific method, which led people to more closely observe nature and learn from it. Artists also observed nature more closely and landscape art for its own sake began to emerge as a true art form. At first it was considered a lower form of art because it didn’t have religious significance, but this was the beginning of its ascendancy to its peak in the 1800’s. After about 1900, landscape photography and more psychological forms of painting became more ‘important’ in the eyes or art buyers.

Albrecht_Altdorfer_019Landscape with Footbridge, Albrecht Altdorfer (1516)

This may be the painting which started it all. It’s possibly the first well-known European pure landscape painting. There’s no religious or historic meaning to it. This is landscape art just for the sake of it. Everything is vertical and he used a portrait orientation to enhance the effect. This is an example of a true artist creating pure art. He couldn’t sell it to a church or to anybody looking to enhance their status by purchasing a significant ‘history’ painting. It’s purely a decorative landscape. Perhaps the owner of the property wanted it? Sometimes when you are doing landscape photography, you have to decide what the purpose is. Is it a stock photo you wish to sell? Is it fine art to hang on the wall? Is it pure art, just for your own enjoyment? There’s no correct answer when it comes to art. But this painting does represent the beginning of true landscape art.

Albrecht_Altdorfer_017A Crucifixion, Albrecht Altdorfer, (1520)

Here is an example of an artist who loved the landscape, and painted an image to be purchased by the Church. Despite the classic theme, Altdorfer decided to include a richly detailed landscape. The background almost looks like the Na Pali cliffs of Kauai, Hawaii. He went way above and beyond the call of duty in terms of artistic landscape content here. As landscape photographers, we can put in some extra effort to make a photo better. For example, move around to show a more open view to what lies beyond the foreground.

Altdorfer_AlexanderThe Battle of Issus/Alexander, Albrecht Altdorfer, (1529)

This is simply a massively overwhelming landscape. It starts with a fairly close up view of soldiers in the foreground and reaches back to include the Mediterranean Sea with the island of Cyprus in the middle. Then it continues into the background showing the Red Sea and the mouths of the Nile in Egypt, with a glowing sunset to the southwest. It’s also physically huge in size at about 5 feet tall. Altdorfer spent a lot of time painting each soldier. He made sure it looked powerful from a distance. This is possibly one of the 10 best landscape paintings (with people included) of all time.

It’s good not only for the details, but because he did the research to provide a nearly accurate map of over 1000 miles of land at a time when little was known about how the entire world looked from above. He visualized it as if viewing the scene from an airplane. As a landscape photographer, if you have a lot of detail to present, make sure it looks good at a bigger size. Small prints of this painting, or any detailed photograph are underwhelming because they must be seen large! Simple compositions however, can be seen at smaller sizes.



Joachim Patinir, also called de Patiner (1480-1524) Flemish

Joachim Patinir was a pioneer in landscape painting and lived in what is now Belgium. He was one of the first painters to consider himself primarily a landscape painter, though many of his works told stories via characters which were often painted by his assistants. He was one of the first European painters to use a wide-angle panoramic format.

Crossing_the_River_StyxCharon crossing the Styx, Joachim Patinir (1515-1524)

Charon is the mythical figure who is supposed to ferry the souls of the dead to hell (on the right), or possibly to the fountain of youth creating the smaller river on the left. The large river splits the composition in half and extends on to the ocean. The passenger in the boat must decide between heaven and hell and now the decision is being carried out.

The contrast between the two halves is dramatic, and you can use contrast to your advantage in landscape photography. You can contrast light vs. dark, or smooth vs. rough. There are a multitude of contrasting elements which can be used in a landscape photograph. Many of the greatest landscape photographs have strong contrasts contained within. There’s a lot to see in this painting, which always makes a picture interesting.



Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483 – 1520) Italy

Raffaello (Rafael) was an incredibly prolific painter during his short lifetime. He ran a large workshop which produced many famous painters. Today he is regarded as one of the finest painters of the Renaissance. His students scattered to other areas after the Sack of Rome in 1527, in which 45,000 civilians were killed. You can learn a lot about history by learning about the lives of the painters. War and disease affected nearly every master painter for the last 500 years. They often moved from place to place, fleeing violence and the ruined economies which followed. The most successful painters adapted to changing economies.

Today, we must deal with the ups and downs of the economy but fortunately over half of the world lives in peaceful times. Take advantage of these peaceful times and photograph the world!

Sanzio_01The School of Athens, Rafael, (1511)

Rafael painted this after seeing the half-completed ceiling of the Cistine chapel by Michaelangelo. Even the greats are influenced by other greats. It has all the essence of a modern cityscape or architectural photograph. It has straight vertical lines leading to a vanishing point and open view beyond. He painted it within the (real) arch to give the impression of the indoor wall space extending into the flat painted wall. He used arches within arches to give an effect of great depth. When shooting in the city, use lines and shapes to give depth to what will be a flat print.

Raphael_SpasimoSpasimo, Rafael (1517)

In addition to the dramatic color and expressions of the characters, Rafael included a winding path leading into the landscape beyond. And he topped it off with a nice sunset filtering through the trees. Even though the path to the light takes up a small percentage of the painting, Rafael knew about composing a landscape and how to draw the eye along to the path to the sunset. Leading the eye is important in landscape photography, as we will continue to see throughout the history of landscape painting and photography.



Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio (1488_1576) Italy

Titian was not only a great landscape artist, but also adept at painting all genres from portraits to mythology. He was a student of color and advanced the quality of art to new heights. Look at many paintings created by a master before and after Titian, and you will most likely be able to tell the difference immediately (with some practice) just by the color!

Titian_012Danaë with Nursemaid, Titian (1553–1554)

This is one of many mythological paintings Titian created. His use of color in this work influenced the works of many painters during his time and for the next few hundred years. The volcano is exploding with light and color. It’s as though there’s a spotlight in the foreground, which enhances the contrast with the foreboding background. Color is extremely important in color landscape photography, just as contrast is for black and white landscapes. These colors look natural and not overdone or unnatural. Photo editing software such as Photoshop allows us to enhance the colors to unrealistic levels, and the same can be done with paint.

You’ll notice the true masters rarely go too far with enhanced color, though they often push the limits. When a master artist does create a super-saturated image, everyone knows it’s a work of art and not an accurate representation of reality. However, with a landscape photograph, a certain trust is implied since a photo is supposed to record reality. So it’s probably best to take the tasteful route shown above and work to be there when the colors are naturally rich and dramatic. One exception is with HDR, or High Dynamic Range processing. Often, HDR photographs are intentionally highly colored.

We will see different versions of this scene by different artists and you can compare the similarities and differences.


ActaeonThe Death of Actaeon, Titian (1562)

In his later works, Titian became looser with his brush strokes in an almost impressionistic sort of way. He supposedly applied paint with his fingers when he was close to completion. This was not a good idea because most paint had high concentrations of lead. Many painters died or became sick with lead poisoning.

As photographers, we may often favor one style for a while and then try something new later. Titian was over 70 years of age when he completed this painting, which was quite old for his time. He may have used this rough style because it was easier to do compared to his more youthful precise style of years past. So, as a photographer ages, he/she may not be able to do the same athletically demanding things as in years past, but equally fine works of art can still be produced!


Pieter Brueghel the Elder, (1525-1569) Netherlands /Belgium

Bruegel was one of the first painters to feature the everyday lives of peasants in a landscape setting. Because most artists had to make a living, the subjects of paintings usually featured religious or other ‘high-end’ themes. So Bruegel broke new ground in the field of landscape painting. His extremely detailed works are often used as historical records of peasant life and the severe winter climate of the ‘little ice age.’ Definitely research Brueghel on the internet and plan on spending a long time looking at each painting!

Bruegel,_Pieter_de_Oude_-_De_val_van_icarus_-_hi_resLandscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1558)

This painting has a landscape photographic composition to it. It’s as though there’s a camera on a tripod just above the horse and plough. The image is composed to include the ship to the right and the hills and trees to the left, while including a lot of detail in front. The sun is bright, to show how Icarus would be in danger from the hot sun. So it’s both a record of the times and an artistic work as well. We can do this with our landscape photographs by looking for slices of life and then waiting for the light to be at it’s best. Brueghel put a lot of thought into this painting as evidenced by the herding dog near the shepherd and the two black sheep nearby. Detail is also extremely important in landscape photography, so put a lot of thought into it.


Bruegel_ProverbsNetherlandish Proverbs, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1559)


This painting illustrates characters from 100 proverbs popular in 1559. It’s so full of detail, it takes a long time to see it all. In landscape photography, you may not want to have this much detail, but each detail should be distinct from another so the eye will want to explore every nook and cranny. Many people like to go right up to within inches of a big print, so make every detail count.

ChildrenChildren’s Games, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1559)

This painting is an overview of every child’s game popular in 1559. From a compositional perspective the vanishing point with the distant tower on the right and the view of the river to the left give the viewer a good sense of scale. It gives us an idea of the size of the city and just how many children may be at play in it beyond what we can see. When photographing a cityscape, perspective is important. Showing people doing various things can make a photo extra special. There even seems to be some early hula-hoops in front if they would just put it around their waist instead of rolling them!


Brueghel-tower-of-babelThe Tower of Babel, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1563)

Once again, there’s an incredible amount of detail in this painting. He uses a standard compositional technique that’s important even today, which is to place the main subject slightly off-center. The tower is huge and he didn’t shy away from painting every little detail with the city and hills a mere backdrop. Don’t be afraid to make your main subject as bold as this, if you should ever find something this interesting in real life!



Pieter_Bruegel_d._Ä._107Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1563)

This is a classic winter scene. Brueghel pleasingly composed it so the river flows in a nice curve so we can see people fading into the distance on the ice. Notice how the thick atmosphere makes the background fade away gradually. Clouds and mist are a common way to show depth and it’s commonly used in painting and landscape photography.


Pieter_Bruegel_d._Ä._106bThe Hunters in the Snow, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1565)

The important elements in this painting are the elevated viewpoint and how the hunters in the foreground are almost like more detailed version of the small people down on the ice. In a landscape photograph, you can provide foreground detail to show a close up view of things which are more distant. For example you can show grass close up and a grassy hill in the background so the viewer can imagine being in the foreground and eventually walking up onto the hill. Painting and photography are often about the imagination of the viewer.