Natural, Human, and Painted Landscapes, by Jonathan Maskit

Recent interest in human landscapes has prompted environmental aestheticians to ask how we should appreciate such landscapes aesthetically, given that they differ so markedly from natural landscapes. This paper investigates whether the new concern for human environments necessitates a re-evaluation of the picturesque as a model of appreciation.

I distinguish human landscapes into two broad types. “Vernacular landscapes,” e.g., pastoral landscapes, appear as they do not because people intended to bring about a particular sort of aesthetic character, but because people did something else with the land that inadvertently gave it a new aesthetic character. “Designed landscapes,” e.g., parks, arise as the result of deliberate actions whose intended purpose is primarily to make the landscape look one way rather than another.

A survey of European and American landscape paintings shows that prior to Romanticism it was virtually unheard of to portray anything other than a vernacular landscape: farms, towns, fields with flocks, etc. While nature often provides the background to these scenes, it is humanity and its projects that makes up the foreground. Apparent exceptions to this trend, e.g., the work of Jacob van Ruisdael, portray not actual natural landscapes, but nature as the painter imagined it to be. That is, these landscapes too are human landscapes, the product of the painter’s design.

Painted landscapes are artifacts that provide a model for how to design a landscape. Whether painted to capture a scene witnessed by the painter or merely to concretize what the painter had imagined, they all include, to a greater or lesser degree, elements of design expressive of the painter’s intentions. Even those paintings that portray a scene painted en plein air inevitably include elements of artistic expression or design. Insofar as designed landscapes too are expressions of human design, the skills we learn in looking at painted landscapes ought to be very much the same ones we use when encountering designed landscapes.

What of vernacular landscapes? Here we do not find in the landscapes the marks of a designer in the same way that we do in painted or designed landscapes. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to suggest that we can or even should approach those landscapes in much the same way a painter does: looking for aesthetic elements that we can fit together into something resembling a whole.

If my suggestions about human landscapes are compelling, it is worthwhile to look again at natural landscapes and to ask whether the model I’ve here described might not be a good one in these cases too. If looking at a landscape requires that it be somehow unified despite its internal variety, then trying to see it in a way analogous to how a painter or photographer would, seems worth reconsideration. I am not at all sure that what I argue for is the one, right way to look at landscape, but I am not at all sure that there is one right way at all.

Jonathan Maskit, Denison University, USA

Harvard Citation Guide: Maskit, J. (2012) Natural, Human, and Painted Landscapes, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 20 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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