THE SPECTACLE OF NATURE
LANDSCAPE, CULTURE, AND POWER DURING THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
LYNNETTE LYTLE, ART HISTORY, FINE AND PERFORMING ARTS DEPARTMENT, CLASS OF 2017
Nineteenth-century landscape painting comes from a rich classical tradition. The classical
landscape paintings of both Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (c.1600-1682),
have been recognized as depicting an agreeable landscape. 1 Both Poussin and Lorrain’s traditionof the agreeable landscape was unconventional for its time. But during the eighteenth-century,when Richard Wilson began to look at landscape as a subject worthy of depiction, these two artists influenced his artistic direction. However, it would not be until sixty-six years later,
during the nineteenth-century, that John Constable adopted and aided in promoting landscape
painting, quickly gaining the genre momentum.
Historically, various factors, such as, the opening of the Royal Academies, in 1648 in
France and later in 1768 in England, inhibited landscape painting from flourishing the way it did
in the nineteenth-century. The royal academies regulated the arts, promoting artists through
patronage and recognition. The academy also regulated the importance of art through the
hierarchy of genres. In descending order the genres were ranked as follows: history, portraiture,
genre, landscape, and lastly still-life. The low ranking of landscape painting during the
nineteenth-century affected the importance of this historically under-appreciated genre.
However, the main impact in the shift of importance to the genre during the nineteenth-century
was the rise of liberalism. Liberalism was an ideology, for and by those with capital, stating that
they wanted freedom from aristocratic intervention and a free market. Through the new liberal
ideology, those with capital were granted the ability to control not only the means of production,
but also the organization of society. The development of more democratic systems of
government, led to a restructuring of society, and thus created a new outlook on life, especially
The new notion of nature as both useful and agreeable, came from the liberal ideology.
This ideology was founded and based upon the aristocratic notion of land for both retreat and
productivity. This idea passed from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, through a small group
economists known as the Physiocrats. the Physiocrats, led by Frenchman Francois Quesnay,
argued that studying physical nature was necessary to aid them with their economic theories. 2
Nature was now reinvented through capitalists eyes to promote their conviction that nearly every aspect of life could be transformed into a useful commodity. This liberal ideology would be countered just as soon as it was established. By mid-nineteenth century, new ideologies sprang forth, countering the mass commercialization of nature, but the end result remained the same. Nature remained a commodity and continues to be commodified, even within something as seemingly innocent as landscape painting.
With supporting evidence from the book, The Spectacle of Nature: Landscape and
Bourgeois Culture in Nineteenth Century France by Nicholas Green. An in depth review on how
the bourgeoisie were able to gain control of nature, through economics, and its reflection on
landscape painting during the late eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries will be explored in this
exhibition, which rather than seeing nature solely through the lens of military conquest, will
examine how redefining nature as a spectacle to be visually consumed in England, France, and
the United States had just as great an impact on transformation of nature into a commodity.