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Topographic Landscapes
I had a strange experience this evening. I was browsing through a book of old paintings when I came upon one by Jean-Baptiste Corot; the famous French landscape artist of the early nineteenth century. The work was painted in Rome in 1826 - 175 years ago. I didn't really notice the title of the painting, but as I studied it, I suddenly realise, Hey, I've been there! The work was entitled Study of the Coliseum or View from the Farnese Gardens (Noon). In fact, as I peered into the compositional depths of the painting I recognised the ancient Arch of Constantine in the lower left middle ground and just beyond that, the small plaza next to the Coliseum where I had stood back in May of this year for several minutes, taking pictures and studying the portion of the ancient structure which had been removed centuries before by builders in search of convenient (and free) building materials. I recall at the time having turned from the Coliseum and looked behind me, off beyond the arch to a beautifully landscaped hill, not conscious that it was the Farnese Gardens, but nonetheless enchanted by the deep greens of its peculiarly Italian beauty. The Corot painting, with its lush greenery in the foreground, was the view looking back at where I stood. It was almost like having been aboard a time machine.

This type of painting is known as the topographic landscape, and though I've seen many of them over the years, I'd never really considered them a separated and distinct landscape genre. In the same book, as I perused it more closely, I found Claude-Joseph Vernet's View of Naples with Vesuvius painted in 1748. This work didn't quite have the same impact on me personally as did the Corot even though I'd been to both Naples and the foothills of the mountain in visiting Pompeii. And though it showed a great deal of topography, it was much more a traditional land/seascape with no distinct point of origin to fix it in my own experience. The Italians called such a work a "veduta" (meaning "view"); and not all of them are topographic. Canaletto's vedutas of Venice are, in fact, devoid of either land (only pavement) or "scape," being entirely architecture instead.

On the other extreme, painted in the early 1600s, Jan Brueghel's View of the Castle Mariemont could almost be considered a map. The castle, in fact, no longer exists and the highly cultivated, tightly organised estate around it has changed to some degree, but not beyond recognition, even though the elevation from which the work was imagined never existed. A photograph of the exact scene today would have to be taken from a low-flying aircraft. The truly topographic landscape is necessarily one painted from a high promontory (whether real or imagined), with a strong map-like element in its composition. Berthe Morisot in her View of Paris from the Tracadero painted in 1872 features two stylishly attired ladies and a child in the foreground with a wide, sloping swath of green beyond that, then a layer of broad avenues, the Seine, and finally in the background, Paris. Most topographic landscapes are marked with this layered composition, each layer becoming narrower and narrower towards the horizon.

England's John Constable painted such a view for the Slater-Rebows family of their estate, Wivenhoe Park, in 1816. The owner liked the painting but, in seeing it, asked Constable to change certain compositional elements. Then he set about changing the actual park itself to match the painting. He even had the artist add several inches of canvas to both edges of the painting to further complete the panoramic quality of the work. The painting is entitled Wivenhoe Park, Essex and for those of you wondering how the artist accomplished such a slick trick and did so flawlessly, he unstretched the canvas, mounted it to a wider wooden panel, then deftly glued the added inches of canvas to each end. The seams are all but invisible. The changes made to the actual Wivenhoe Park topography and landscape are just as seamless. Talk about your nature imitating art!

Contributed by Lane, Jim
23 October 2001

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