A landscape painting refers to an artwork whose primary focus is natural scenery. Landscape was a main genre in the eastern art tradition by 4th century AD. However, in the west, till the 17th century, landscape was majorly confined to the background of portraits or paintings dealing principally with religious, mythological or historical subjects. Painters of the Dutch Golden Age; and French painters Claude Lorraine and Nicholas Poussin; were the first to explore landscape art as an independent genre. British painters John Constable and J.M.W. Turner made a key contribution in elevating the landscape genre, which till then was ranked fourth in order of importance out of five genres. In the 19th century, French Impressionism stormed the art world and many of its artists devoted most of their careers to studying and painting the landscape. Since then, landscape continues to be a major theme in western art. Here are the 10 most famous landscape paintings of all time including Constable’s Hay Wain, Hokusai’s Great Wave, Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Monet’s Water Lilies.
#10 View of Toledo
Artist: El Greco
Year: 1596 – 1600
El Greco was an artist of Greek origin who was active in Spain and was among the leading figures of the Spanish Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. Landscape paintings were rare in western art of the time and scenery usually acted merely as a background for human activity. View of Toledo is considered the only unequivocal landscape of the 16th century and the first Spanish landscape painting of its time. It depicts the city of Toledo in Spain but the artist has taken liberties with the actual layout of the place. Among El Greco’s most cherished masterpieces, View of Toledo is renowned for its enigmatic symbolism and for the majestically executed contrast between the dark skies above and the glowing green below. Along with Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, it remains one of the most famous depictions of the sky in Western art.
Artist: Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh, one of the most renowned artists in history, had a difficult life marred by mental instability. He ultimately shot himself in the chest with a revolver and died two days later. Among Van Gogh’s most celebrated works are his paintings and prints of Irises and this painting is the most famous among them. He painted it in the year before his death and referred to it as the “the lightning conductor for my illness” as he felt his work was his hope against becoming insane. In September 1987, Irises was sold for $53.9 million making it the most expensive painting ever sold. Its record stood for about two and a half years and, as of 2018, it ranks 25th in the list of most expensive paintings ever sold if you adjust for inflation. Van Gogh is considered as a great master in the landscape genre and Irises is one of his most famous landscapes.
#8 The Fighting Temeraire
Full Name: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up
Artist: J.M.W. Turner
HMS Temeraire was a 98-gun second-rate warship of the Royal Navy which is famous for its heroic performance in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar between U.K. and the combined fleets of French and Spanish Navies. J.M.W. Turner depicts the warship, years after its glorious days, being pulled by a tugboat, to be broken into scraps. The painting pays a tribute to sailing ships as they were going to be replaced by steam-powered vessels. Turner uses symbolism, like the setting sun, to suggest the demise of the subject and its mortality despite its heroic past. J.M.W. Turner is regarded by many as the greatest landscape artist in history. The Fighting Temeraire is his most famous painting and the one he referred to as his “darling”. In 2005, it was voted as Britain’s favorite painting in a poll organized by the BBC.
#7 The Hay Wain
Artist: John Constable
English artists during the Romanticism movement favored landscape and the most influential among these was John Constable. The Hay Wain depicts a rural scene on the River Stour between the English counties of Suffolk and Essex. It is the area around where Constable was born; which is portrayed in his most celebrated masterpieces; and which came to be known as Constable Country. At the center of the painting is a wooden wain, or large cart, which is being pulled across the river by three horses. The scene takes place near Flatford Mill, which was owned by Constable’s father. The left bank is in Suffolk while the landscape on the right bank is in Essex. The Hay Wain is revered as one of the greatest landscape Romantic paintings as well as among the best ever created by an English artist. In a 2005 poll organized by BBC, it was voted the second most popular painting in any British gallery after The Fighting Temeraire. However in a 2017 poll conducted by Samsung, it ranked above Turner’s masterpiece.
#6 Impression, Sunrise
Artist: Claude Monet
Impressionism was an art movement that emerged in France in the middle of the 19th century. Among other things, it is is characterized by accurate depiction of light, candid poses and vivid colors. This painting is famous for giving a name to the Impressionist movement and has now become its quintessential symbol. It was not well taken by the critics and the term Impressionist was coined in a satirical review by Louis Leroy. The Impressionist movement, however, soon became so popular that it spread to music and literature as well. The subject of the painting is the harbor of Le Havre in France. Impression, Sunrise is noted for very loose brushstrokes that suggest rather than define it. Monet uses color as the main factor to capture the very essence of the scene. The painting, with its hazy scene, broke away from traditional landscape painting and classic, idealized beauty. Impression, Sunrise is thus one of the most influential paintings in the history of landscape art.
#5 Wanderer above the Sea of Fog
Artist: Caspar David Friedrich
Caspar David Friedrich is considered the most important German Romantic artist. He is best known for works which put humans amid night skies, morning mists, barren trees, etc. thus illustrating diminished strength of man in the larger scale of life. In this painting, a man, formally dressed and holding a walking cane, stands on an outcropping of rocks with his back to the viewer. Thus the viewer is enabled to see the landscape covered in a thick sea of fog; at which the man looks contemplatively. Friedrich’s use of space illustrates man’s minuscule place in nature. The painting depicts various landmarks from the beautiful Elbe Sandstone Mountains in Saxony in southeastern Germany. Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is the most famous work of Caspar David Friedrich. It has become synonymous with the Romantic era and it is the best known landscape painting of the movement.
#4 Christina’s World
Artist: Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth was one of the best-known U.S. artists of the middle 20th century. His precise realistic views of rural life became icons of American culture and challenged the nature of modern art in the nation, which was primarily abstract. His masterpiece, Christina’s World, is among the most famous American paintings of the 20th century. It depicts a woman lying on the field looking at a gray house on the horizon. The woman in the painting is Anna Christina Olson. She was Wyeth’s neighbor in South Cushing, Maine and she suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder that prevented her from walking. Wyeth was inspired to create the masterpiece when he saw her crawling across a field from his window. Though it received little attention on first being displayed, Christina’s World grew in popularity over the years. It has now achieved an iconic status and it is the most famous landscape by an American.
#3 The Great Wave off Kanagawa
Artist: Katsushika Hokusai
Year: 1829 – 1833
Katsushika Hokusai is regarded as one of the greatest artists in Japanese history and numerous western artists have been influenced by his works. He also played a key role in the popularization of the landscape genre through his renowned series of landscape prints Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. These prints depict the mountain from different locations and in various seasons and weather conditions. Also known as The Great Wave or simply The Wave, this painting is the first print of the series; the most famous work of Hokusai; and perhaps the most recognizable piece of Japanese art in the world. It depicts an enormous wave threatening boats off the coast of the Japanese town of Kanagawa. Mount Fuji may be seen in the background of the print. The Great Wave off Kanagawa was a source of inspiration for artists in many genres, particularly the Impressionists. It is one of the most reproduced and renowned artworks in the world.
#2 Water Lilies
French Title: Nympheas
Artist: Claude Monet
Year: 1896 – 1926
Impressionism was the most important movement in the development of landscape art and the “Nympheas” or Water Lilies series of Claude Monet has been described as “The Sistine Chapel of Impressionism”. It consists of approximately 250 oil paintings which were created by Monet during the last 30 years of his life. They are now on display in museums all around the world. The dazzling complexity of color and light in the panels opens the viewer’s eyes to the incredible diversity of nature and to the depth and mystery of the life it sustains. An amazing thing about these works is that Monet’s eyesight was badly deteriorating due to cataract while he painted most of these masterpieces. Claude Monet’s water-lily paintings are among the most recognized and celebrated works of 20th Century art and they hugely influenced following generations of artists.
#1 The Starry Night
Artist: Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh, who had a struggle with mental illness, admitted himself to the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in France on 8th May 1889. Although painted during the day, this masterpiece depicts the night view outside the window of Van Gogh’s room at the asylum. The Starry Night shows the artist’s interest in astronomy and a study made by the Griffith Park Observatory demonstrated that Vincent represented the Moon, Venus, and several stars in the exact position they occupied that clear night. The painting has been much analyzed with various art historian finding different symbolic elements in it. The Starry Night is one of the most recognized paintings in the history of western art. It has been widely referenced in popular culture including in a well known song by Don McLean titled “Vincent”. It is regarded as the masterpiece of Vincent Van Gogh and it is the most famous landscape painting ever created.