Classical Landscape Painting in the Late Renaissance

Adam Elsheimer: Flight into Egypt

Seventeenth-century Classical Landscape painting was greatly influenced by German artist Adam Elsheimer.

During the 17th century, Rome was the art capital of the western world, where the papacy ordered many commissions of artwork designed to glorify God and the Church. Among artists working in Rome, the Classical Landscape style began to develop.

Paintings in this style draw their inspiration from classical antiquity and ancient literary themes, and present nature as harmonious, serene, and majestic. Subject matter is taken from Greek and Roman mythology (like “Midas and Bacchus” or “Venus Presenting Arms to Aeneas”) or from Biblical sources (like “Exposition of Moses” or “Adoration of the Magi”), and human figures in the landscape are often in pastoral or antique dress, all placed in an idealized landscape. The paintings feature scenes of wild natural beauty.

Seventeenth-century landscape painting didn’t have a chance to flourish, however, because of political events like the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in Germany and the economic stagnation that resulted from it as well as the threat of the Ottoman Empire in Austria, until the 18th century. However, some notable 17th-century artists did emerge. For instance, French landscape artist Claude Lorrain; the Italian painters Annibale Carracci and Domenichino, creaters of large-scale monumental landscapes; the revolutionary Italian painter Caravaggio; and the German artist Adam Elsheimer, known for his use of strong lighting effects.

Paintings on Copper

Adam Elsheimer is a little-known artist, barely mentioned in Janson’s landmark art history text History of Art. He became a pioneer of naturalistic landscapes, very much influenced by Caravaggio. Elsheimer admired his contemporary’s use of brutal realism that shows plain muscular working men as his subjects and dramatic lighting that places an unmistakable focus in paintings – revolutionary for the time.

Born in Frankfurt, Elsheimer migrated to Rome. He meticulously created complex compositions in oil on copper panels and became famous for his detailed and jewel-like paintings. Elsheimer developed a beautiful mastery of light, creating landscape settings with a sensitive use of light, atmosphere, and color.

Succeeding years saw his compositions grow simpler and more direct, perhaps influenced by the successes of Caravaggio. His paintings played a key role in the development of landscape painting where human figures are fused into harmony with their landscape settings rather than dominating the painting. His influence is also felt in his direct naturalistic style that shows great sensitivity to the effects of light. He influenced many artists of the following generation, most notably Rembrandt and Rubens.

Flight into Egypt

A famous work is Elsheimer’s “Flight Into Egypt” (detail above), in which viewers can witness his sensitive treatment of light. Only rarely are landscapes depicted at night, and this painting is notable for showing the constellations in a night sky in correct formation.

Viewers can notice, too, the four main areas illuminated by the artist’s use of lighting effects: the moon in the sky as well as its reflection in the water; the intimate area lit up by torchlight of Joseph leading Mary on the donkey; and the far-off campfire with its plume of sparks rising into the night air. The atmospheric contrast he creates between different sources of light in the same picture show his high degree of talent and why today he is considered a master of Classical Landscape painting.


  1. Janson, H.W. History of Art. N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
  2. Kren, Emil. Web Gallery of Art. 1996. Adam Elsheimer. June 2006.
  3. National Galleries of Scotland. 2006. Paintings of Adam Elsheimer: Devil in the Detail exhibition. June 2006.