Landscapes, Real and Imagined

I completed my Modern Art course on Coursera with full marks for this essay in the Final! The brief was to choose an interesting theme that is an idea that can support multiple questions and to choose a sub-theme or essential question based on the theme.


Aquila Khanam

Introduction to Modern Art

February 22, 2016

Landscapes: Real and Imagined

How artists convey mood, emotion, atmosphere in their paintings.

My theme is to study how artists depict landscapes, whether real places that they know or places that they have imagined through the lens of their emotions and experiences. The essential question (or sub-theme) is “How is mood conveyed in these works of art?”

~ Starry Night Over the Rhone


The first work of art that I chose is Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh. Much like Starry Night that we studied in the course, Van Gogh chose to represent the light in Starry Night Over the Rhone with a fierce intensity, seen in blazing stars and street lights reflected long and bright in the water. Van Gogh was an emotional, volatile artistic genius who suffered from severe depression and had a deep love for his brother Theo. Clearly, he was a passionate man and his intense emotions are represented in the short, furious brushstrokes, painted wet-on-wet, the beautiful subtle and arresting shades of blue and yellow and this inexplicable tide of fervor that washes over the observer. Even though this ought to be a calm painting of the riverside in Paris, the mood of this painting seems quite the opposite. To me the mood it conveys a sense of movement, this isn’t a still, tranquil night, it’s a night that is alive. The stars aren’t merely twinkling, they are afire! The water is turbulent, causing the light to dance on its waves. In the foreground, two lovers are taking a stroll perhaps and boats that have been put away for the night. Somehow, these elements compound the feeling of agitation in the night by serving as a stark contrast. I like that Van Gogh chose to describe the painting in terms of color as

“The sky is aquamarine, the water is royal blue, the ground is mauve. The town is blue and purple. The gas is yellow and the reflections are russet gold descending down to green-bronze. On the aquamarine field of the sky the Great Bear is a sparkling green and pink, whose discreet paleness contrasts with the brutal gold of the gas.”

Van Gogh’s landscape is his interpretation of the Rhone River and the mood is vibrant, animated and alive – not words you would usually associate with the night.

~ Water Lilies   




The second painting that I chose is called Water Lilies by Claude Monet. In contrast to Starry Night, the mood conveyed by Water Lilies is serene, like sitting at the edge of a pond in the quiet part of your garden. This difference extends to the painters too. While Van Gogh was a volatile, depressed, impoverished, brilliant painter who wasn’t appreciated for his work in his time, Monet was a rich, well-respected, brilliant painter whose house at Giverny was a haven. Monet painted about 250 versions of Water Lilies and ensured that the paintings were housed in an oval room so that the observer would feel like they were sitting in the middle of a pond surrounded by beautiful water lilies. This painting is amazingly long, so much so that it was actually painted in three parts, called a triptych, and has this unique characteristic of a Monet that when you stand close to the painting and try to analyze each individual element, it seems like a random series of brush strokes and colors but if you take a step back (or several, really), you see the entire, breathtakingly beautiful landscape in one epiphanous gasp. Falling into my theme of real and imagined landscapes, no other painting blurs the lines quite like this one. The mood is undoubtedly: Serenity.

~ Evening, Honfleur


The third work of art is Evening, Honfleur by Georges-Pierre Seurat. The previous two paintings were about short, quick brush strokes, whether the furious impatience of Van Gogh or the broken color of Monet. Seurat is different. He uses a technique called pointillism to tell the story of his landscape. This painting is composed of over 25 colors of carefully, meticulously placed dots, that highlight the luminosity of the painting. Like Water Lilies and unlike Starry Night Over the Rhone, this seaside painting is calm. The water is still, the shore idyllic. In his painstaking work, Seurat has created a landscape that captures a moment in time, in Honfleur exactly as he must have seen it. The colors that he chose give a sense of space and light, the sea seamlessly meets the sky at the horizon. As a mood for this painting, I would choose peace. An interesting fact is that Seurat added the wooden frame later, also meticulously painted in the same style of using thousands of dots, to heighten the visual appeal of the work.

~ Pines and Rocks

W1siZiIsIjE1MTA3MSJdLFsicCIsImNvbnZlcnQiLCItcmVzaXplIDIwMDB4MjAwMFx1MDAzZSJdXQThe fourth work of art is Pines and Rocks by Paul Cézanne. This work is an fascinating because unlike the usual expansive canvases that artists paint landscapes on, this work is compact and vertical. Also, unlike the previous landscapes, this one doesn’t look interpreted at all, it looks like an accurate, or “real” landscape, in the context of the theme, with a few shades browns, green and blues. However, the longer you stare at the painting, the more you see. The artistic flair is apparent in the mix of solid lines and smudges of paint that coexist. The forest floor, the rocks and tree trunks are solid but everything around them, the leaves, the sky, the moss exudes a feeling of airiness. The reds, yellows and violets become apparent. In some parts, the painting seems deliberate, like Seurat. In others, it’s breezy, like Monet or Van Gogh. This combination creates a shimmering effect that Cézanne called “vibrations of light”. As a landscape, I was drawn to this painting because it is a curious combination of familiarity of the scene and uniqueness of landscape painting style. The mood seems mysterious, adventurous and pensive like a long walk alone in the woods on a mountain.

~ Fin ~

Since I mentioned Monet’s oval room in my essay, I also added a picture of Musée Orangerie, a museum in Paris next to the Louvre that displays his paintings in an oval room, as he had wished.

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