ON HIS DEATHBED in 1851, at the home of his mistress, the great English painter J. M. W. Turner is said to have offered an enviably neat summary of his life’s work and beliefs. Having produced hundreds of oil paintings and watercolors over the previous six decades – a corpus of landscapes that would redefine European art – Turner simply declared: “The sun is God.” In the century after Turner’s death, landscape painting became the great engine of modern artistic creativity. Artists did in fact live by chasing the sun, capturing the way it felt in the world in ever more pioneering ways. Turner’s pale and radiant scenes changed the way artists painted light; his main rival, John Constable, was similarly influential with his moody evocations of shifting weather. The French painters who followed – Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Degas – successively pushed the boundaries of artistic innovation, and created landscapes that still count today among the great works of art, bridging both serious and popular tastes. In our own time, landscape painting retains an unquestionable popular appeal. As civilization pulls us further and further from nature, it’s no surprise that we cherish glimpses of arcadia. Landscapes have become nearly ubiquitous: in living rooms and waiting rooms; on fine china and restaurant walls; at adult ed and on PBS; in regular blockbuster exhibitions and on the resulting sweatshirts, mugs, and even refrigerator magnets. There is one place, however, where landscapes have almost disappeared: serious contemporary painting.
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