Part of our requirement during my Arts diploma course at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) was to study the various contemporary art movement. For the first two years of my three-year course, we had a small segment of Art history lesson where we went through the different periods of arts from Prehistoric arts to contemporary art movement to South East Asian Art. At different points of time, I was given the Impression movement to study and present, and then the Romanticism movement for a thousand-word report. This was about 9 years ago.

The Impressionist  

As I learnt about the Impression movement, I came to learn about the french painter Claude Monet, one of the forerunners of the Impressionist movement. He was the most consistent and prolific practitioner of the movement’s philosophy of expressing one’s perceptions before nature, especially as applied to plein-air landscape painting. The term “Impressionism” was derived from the title of his painting Impression, Sunrise.

Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant)

Monet’s ambition of documenting the French countryside led him to adopt a method of painting the same scene many times in order to capture the changing of light and the passing of the seasons.

The Cliffs at Etretat, 1885

La Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877

I was particularly drawn into Monet’s landscape paintings. It was there that I became fascinated by his winter paintings (partly also the exposure of some BBC documentary series about the movement around the time of studying him). One of his famous winter painting was The Magpiean oil-on-canvas landscape painting. The Magpie is one of approximately 140 snowscapes produced by Monet.

The way Monet created the magpie as a focal point in the composition leads our eye to the bird through contrast and through repeated lines of movement in the fence’s shadows. The brushwork is masterful, as he uses the brush to show light, shadow and what remains of snow on narrow branches of trees.

The Magpie is a masterpiece of Monet’s early style, more Realist than Impressionist. There’s a sharp differentiation between light and shadow, though the shadows are mainly blue and not grey.  Dark footprints in the foreground add a bit of mystery, but more than anything make us think of the rawness of nature’s beauty with only a hint of human intervention. He is still using black which may have added just the right amount of contrast.  If we could not see the energy of his brushstrokes, a viewer may think the painting’s quality so good that it could be a photograph.  The whites are bright enough, though, that you’d almost want to wear sunglasses to look at the painting.  The Magpie appears to work its special magic by depicting what may be the day after a night of snow.

Floating Ice near Vertheuil,

By 1880, Monet’s paintings were gradually becoming more and more abstract.  He became less concerned with structure, depth and perspective and more about colour, pattern, vibration.  In the Floating Ice near Vertheuil, was one example. It was not only about the weather and how light effects the colour, but Monet was also very concerned with patterns, as his brushstrokes looked like dabs of paint, just quick impressions.

All that I have learnt from the research of Claude Monet’s paintings was also further emphasised by my lecturer’s advice in painting lessons during my foundation year in my diploma course (we were exposed to a whole range of art mediums), where white isn’t white and black isn’t black; there is aquamarine in white and amber brown in shadows, etc. It seems that my lecturers at the time were trying to help me see how the artist sees and to use my eye to see an Impressionist’s vision of the world. Studying these snowy landscapes had also given me an impression of the European landscape, locations of otherworldly and unique places which cannot be found in Singapore. It made we want to visit such places when I get older.

At another point in time, I had to research about the Romanticism movement for my thousand word essay during my diploma course, particularly Spanish painter Francisco Goya. Between 1810 and 1820, Francisco Goya produced a series of images entitled “The Disasters of War” were extremely gruesome as it depicted many scenes of death and destruction. This set of prints were created, largely believed as a protest against the violence during the uprising of the 2nd May 1808, or Dos de Mayo 1808. This lead to his later period which culminates a series of dark paintings he painted as frescoes, disillusioned by political and social developments in Spain, where he lived in near isolation until his death.

The Second of May 1808: The Charge of the Mamelukes, Francisco de Goya,1814.

About Romanticism

Romanticism (1800 to 1850) was characterised by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as the glorification of all the past and nature, preferring the medieval rather than the classical. The movement emphasised intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that experienced in confronting the new aesthetic categories of the sublimity and beauty of nature. It elevated folk art and ancient custom to something noble, but also spontaneity as a desirable characteristic.

Winter Afternoon, Hans Gude, 1847

In northern Europe, the Early Romantic visionary optimism and belief that the world was in the process of great change and improvement had largely vanished, and some art became more conventionally political and polemical as its creators engaged polemically with the world as it was. Many Romantic ideas about the nature and purpose of art, above all the pre-eminent importance of originality, remained important for later generations, and often underlie modern views, despite opposition from theorists.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, c.1818.

As the beginning of the Romantic movement created a new interest in the landscape, practitioners included the German artist Caspar David Friedrich, who depicted remote and wild landscapes and was one of the first artists to portray winter landscapes as austere, forbidding and desolate. He idealises an uninterrupted nature, highlighted by creating excruciatingly detailed art. The emphasis on nature is encouraged by the low horizontal lines, and the preponderance of sky to enhance the wilderness; humanity, if it is represented, is depicted as small in comparison with the greater natural reality.

His winter scenes were solemn and still. Based on direct observation, Friedrich’s landscapes did not reproduce nature but were painted to create a dramatic effect, using nature as a mirror of human emotions. His aim was a reunion with the spiritual self through the contemplation of nature, paralleling Romanticism’s validation of intense emotions such as apprehension, fear, horror, terror and awe. Awe in particular – experienced when confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities – drew Friedrich’s interest, as seen in his idealised portrayals of coasts, forests and craggy mountains.  Most of his winter landscapes were plein-air depictions of winter scenes, using the quality of grey winter light to create the special winter atmosphere.

The Cross Beside The Baltic, Friedrich, 1815. This painting marked a move away from depictions in broad daylight, and a return to nocturnal scenes, twilight and a deeper poignancy of mood.

Another painter well known for using the plein-air technique was American landscape painter, Frederic Edwin Church, perhaps best known for painting large panoramic landscapes, often depicting mountains, waterfalls, and sunsets He also sometimes depicts the dramatic natural phenomena that he saw during his travels to the Arctic and Central and South America. Church’s paintings put an emphasis on light and a Romantic respect for an extraordinary yet natural detail, using romanticism, and luminism in his paintings.

The Icebergs, Frederic Edwin Church, 1861

Aurora Borealis, Frederic Edwin Church, 1865

The iconography of the Aurora Borealis painting suggested personal and nationalistic references. The peak in the painting had been named Mount Church during Hayes’s expedition. Aurora Borealis incorporated details of Hayes’ ship, drawn from a sketch he brought back upon returning from his expedition. Contrasting with his earlier works The North and The Icebergs (1861), the intact ship highlights Hayes’ achievements in navigating this space, as well as the state of the nation in navigating this contentious historical moment. Presenting the ship’s safe passage through the eerie experience, Church suggested optimism for the future with a tiny light shining out from the ship’s window. The Aurora Borealis is considered by some scholars to be best understood within a wider polyptych or multi-paneled grouping; the meanings of the paintings multiply in relation to each other and the harrowing period of American history during which they were created.

Rainy Season in the Tropics, 1866.

The Aurora Borealis was associated with Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866) for two reasons. First, the two paintings marked the completion of the arctic-tropical sequence created with The Heart of the Andes (1859) and The North is also known as The Icebergs (1861). These pairings drew together popular attention on the exploration of the arctic North and the tropical South. The second association between Aurora Borealis and Rainy Season in the Tropics was established through their compositions and “in their luminosity,” where each suggested a “renewed optimism in natural and historic events.”*

*Kinsey, Joni L. (1995). History in Natural Sequence: The Civil War Polyptych of Frederic Edwin Church. Redefining American History Painting, Patricia M. Burnham and Lucretia Hoover Giese (eds.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. pp. 172–173. ISBN 0-521-46059-X.


Why This Matters?

Studying these various art movements such as Impressionist and Romanticism have influenced my early practices in landscape photography with a certain pictorialist approach. The paintings from these masters have given me an impression of what the European landscapes could be like, therefore shaping my photographic practices and the preferential visual to dramatic landscapes and snowscape terrains, as I have subconsciously tried to emulate these art styles into my landscape photography.



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