Evolution: Landscapes had to be learned

It’s easy to assume that landscape painting (or print) has been around as long as humans with paints or ink close by have fallen in love with beautiful vistas– that the art form is every bit as natural as a walk in late-afternoon sunlight. Surrounded as we are by beautiful scenery and (the corollary) a seemingly never-ending supply of Blue Ridge landscapes in acrylics and oils and ink, it’s that seems to be an especially logical assumption. 
As with all things in art, however, a landscape image is a convention, one that evolved over time and through the various visual experiments of generations of artists. Artists had to learn how to envision the landscape transplanted to a two-dimensional canvas of a certain size and shape, and then their audience had to learn how to view it. 
“To Delight the Eyes & Transport the Viewer: Dutch Landscape Prints of the Golden Age,” collects prints from the 16th century in the Netherlands, when the idea of making the landscape the sole subject of a piece of art was just beginning to take hold. 
Not surprisingly, the artists represent a wide variety of techniques and, more tellingly, compositions. The anonymous “Landscape with Woodcutters,” from 1559, depicts a small community of woodcutters in an especially flat scene, using spare detail and arranged in broad horizontal lines.
Compare this to a print hanging adjacent to it, Goudt’s “Landscape at Dawn.” Goudt’s dark, dramatic scene locates darkness in the lower corner of a valley and in the swirling clouds directly above. As land and sky retreat, they lighten.
Both of these prints contrast with work by Anthonie Waterloo, whose “Le Portefaix” eschews a broad, vista-full view in favor of a tight focus on carts and animals, pushing the landscape views to the borders of the frame.
Schelte Adam Bolswert’s “Landscape with Storm” seems as stormy, dark, and broadly rendered as Goudt’s “Landscape.” If it looks familiar, however, it’s because it is a print made in imitation of a Paul Rubens painting. Rubens didn’t hire Bolswert because he felt he could make an original print from his painting, something that could stand alone. Rather, Rubens wanted a printer who was skillful enough to translate the nuance of his painting into ink. 
It may seem strange today, but at the time, craftsmanship was a much more important attribute in the arts, and originality far less so. Even while a modern concept, the landscape image, was taking form in small details like this, the exhibit certainly betrays itself as a remnant from a distant era. A fascinating exhibit.

“To Delight the Eyes & Transport the Viewer: Dutch Landscape Prints of the Golden Age” runs through October 6 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. Rugby Road. 924-3592.