The Development of the ‘Picturesque’ in Landscape Gardening – Formal to Informal

Copy of Copy of Copy of Copy of 17th Century Amsterdam (1)It was in the 18th century that criticism notes the dissent from the model of the ‘formal’ garden[1] and the emergence of an ‘informal’ garden[2] style seen across alternatives which included the proposition of the ‘English Landscape’ and ‘Picturesque’ garden[3]. Indeed, Sellers writes that ‘at the beginning of the eighteenth century […] the first voices were heard against strict geometric gardens’[4], ushering in a new degree of informality to the planning of gardens. Previously, according to ‘the model of excellence of a gentleman’[5], the ideal in 17th century France had been the honnête homme[6], encompassing culture, the arts and the tenets of ‘goodness, truth and justice’[7].

[Versailles] Gardens 1746

Fig. 2. Gardens and palace of Versailles in 1746, by the abbot Delagrive.

I’d argue that Louis XIV was central to this ideal and that the scheme behind his gardens at Versailles represented the height of the formal garden or jardin à la française[8] (fig. 2) as the principal style of Europe, through a balanced, symmetrical and controlled planning. Dézallier d’Argenville in the treatise La théorie et la pratique du jardinage (1709) bolsters this when asserting that:

‘kings too love agriculture, a science in such esteem and so pleasant that several kings and princes deemed it worthy of attention after their affairs of way’[9]

Dézallier’s convictions followed the pattern of Vitruvius and Alberti’s architect-gardener[10], capable of good design through exercising the faculties of knowledge and logic. This rigid view towards gardening was in line with the contemporary belief that ‘art’ was ‘the result of the practical application of knowledge or natural ability — something made and shaped by humans as opposed to something which existed naturally’[11].


Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening, Humphry Repton, published by William Bulmer & Co. (London), hand coloured aquatint, 1795, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1945.

The ‘Picturesque’ emerged foremost as the result of a shift in philosophy which occurred in the following century. This shift instigated the separation of the arts and the sciences in discussing art on its own merit: Shaftesbury, for example, was among the first to appreciate nature on the basis of its beauty. Such a movement can be evidenced in the transition from geometric to landscape gardens by stressing the irregular rather than the symmetrical, the unexpected rather than the grand, and the curvilinear rather than the rectangular.


Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Merchants, c. 1635, National Museum of Art, Washington, D.C.

Poetically speaking, gardening became aligned, to an extent, with landscape painting in art. A statement issued by Alexander Pope that ‘all landscape gardening is landscape painting’[12] was prompted by a compositional approach to a garden’s prospects. Supporting this, Albers lists that:

‘Trees were planted at strategic places […] Perspective was obtained by alternating dark and light colours, light and shadow. Perspective devices […] were adapted to garden plantings […] People began to look at landscapes as if they were paintings’[13]

and it was into this development that the ‘picturesque’ as a descriptive expression applied to the landscape began to gain currency…

Thank You-2

The Elizabethan Country House here…
Introduction to the Picturesque in Landscape Gardening here…
The Impressionists – Putting Women in the Picture here…

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!

Sources Used: 

[1] M. Conan, Baroque Garden Cultures: Emulation, Sublimation, Subversion, Volume 25 (Dumbarton Oaks, 2005), pp. 7-8.

[2] V. Sellers, ‘The Eighteenth Century: From Geometric to Informal Gardens’, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Online [n.d], [accessed 2018].

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Albers, ‘Gardening as Art’, p. 164.

[6] F. Beasley, Salons, History, and the Creation of Seventeenth-century France: Mastering Memory (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006), p. 264

[7] Albers, ‘Gardening as Art’, p. 164.

[8] M. Conan, Tradition and Innovation in French Garden Art: Chapters of a New History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p. 22.

[9] Albers, ‘Gardening as Art’, p. 164.

[10] M. Willes, The Making of the English Gardener: Plants, Books and Inspiration, 1550-1660 (Yale University Press, 2011), p. 32.

[11] Albers, ‘Gardening as Art’, pp. 164-165.

[12] C. Sullivan and E. Boults, Illustrated History of Landscape Design (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), p. 151.

[13] Albers, ‘Gardening as Art’, p. 169.

8 thoughts on “The Development of the ‘Picturesque’ in Landscape Gardening – Formal to Informal

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