“Landscape is a creation of the mind and is intrinsically a superior art.” —Mi Fu
While nature themes—plants, animals, or spirits—have been central to art since pre-history, the landscape genre, which favors sweeping topographical surveys over mere individual natural elements, emerged in ancient Greece in scenic theater backdrops and domestic frescoes. After the fall of the Roman Empire, landscape motifs were largely absent from European art until the 14th century, but they flourished in Asia, particularly in the mist-shrouded mountains and visions of untamed nature of Song Dynasty (10th-13th century China) ink paintings. In European art since the Renaissance, artists and theorists have debated whether landscapes should depict “real” or “ideal” views of the natural world. An example of the latter is Annibale Carracci’s Flight into Egypt (1604), in which tranquil skies and neatly tailored hills make for an impossible idyll, as if ordered by divine law. Whether verdant or barren, serene or sublime, depictions of the landscape capture an artist’s subjectivity just as much as they do the world around us.