Although the term entered the English lexicon at the beginning of the seventeenth century, landscape art is generally traced to roughly 1500 B.C. during the Minoan civilization of ancient Greece. Landscape art is a somewhat broad term, but paintings in this genre typically include natural scenery that may feature fields, forests, mountains, and valleys although figures may also form part of the subject matter. Sky and weather may also play important roles in landscape art. Landscape painting is historically important to both Western and Chinese painting.
Western landscape painting dates to the middle of the second millennium B.C. while the Chinese tradition dates to roughly the eighth century A.D. The pure landscapes of the Minoan period and later western works are defined by natural settings that are expansive in view; that is, a view of a field would be considered a landscape whereas a view of a single flower in that field not. Landscape painting takes the overall setting into consideration which is the single most important defining aspect of this genre. In western painting, the landscape form was an elevated genre though it was highly revered in Chinese painting. Western landscape art did not achieve a high standing until the nineteenth century.
Western landscape painting was particularly important to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Landscapes were often the subject of frescoes. Later, though it was not a popular genre on its own, it often went hand in hand with history painting forming the background of a scene where figures were represented in the foreground. Landscape painting was rarely done during the Middle Ages, but it began to reappear with great skill during the Renaissance where it began to grow in complexity with renewed usage. Leonardo da Vinci and Pieter Brueghel the Elder were artists that advanced the genre.
During the seventeenth century, exotic landscapes became popular and the genre continued to develop as more artists began to specialize in landscape painting. During the nineteenth century the genre truly came into its own and artists such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable elevated landscape art so that it came to be recognized as one of the highest artistic genres.
The Chinese pure landscape tradition, called shan shui, meaning mountain water, gained prominence first during the eighth century. These paintings rarely showed human forms, though a sage might be present or his hut. These paintings were achieved with ink and were a form of the highest Chinese art. Panoramic views often showed mountains, trees, cliffs, and sky. The form soon spread to Japan where it also achieved prominence. Some well-known Asian landscapes include Bamboos and Rock (c.1300) by Li Kan and A Fisher in Autumn (1523) by Tang Yin. Some well-known western landscapes include The Hay Wain by John Constable and The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.