In the early 16th century, several artists working in the Austrian Danube Valley came together to develop a single aesthetic movement. These painters were among the first European artists to draw their primary inspiration from nature. The mountains, the forests, the river and lakes all influenced their senses and imaginations. The Danube artists saw man as organically related to his natural surroundings, and through their art, sought to capture this profound relationship.
While their contemporaries’ depictions of nature were derivative and conventionalized, Danube artists brought a subjective and emotional dynamic to the composition in order to convey the spiritual bond between man and nature. In Albrecht Altdorfer’s Crucifixion
, the presence of the figures and magnitude of the space are dependent on each other, and crucial to the artist’s interpretation of the subject matter itself. Even in landscape paintings with no visible figures—such as Altdorfer’s Regensburg Landscape
—the same principle is at work through the lens of the viewer. Danube artists understood that it is ultimately the viewer’s own experience with the composition through which he or she understands the relationship between man and nature.
The Danube School was also founded upon the idea that nature is a dominant force that provides the essence of life. These artists often approached their work with a profound sensitivity to nature that set them apart from their contemporaries. In Altdorfer’s St. George and the Dragon
, the knight is practically overwhelmed by the forest that surrounds him. To amplify the power of nature, Danube artists often created a structure of growing, organic things that would govern the composition. Their forms seem to meld together, as contours dissolve into shadow or light, and solids coalesce with the atmospheric space.
The importance of landscape for the Danube School was not just seen through paintings of the alps and river valley, but through various religious subjects as well. In scenes of St. Jerome in the wilderness, St. Christopher, St. George, and the Madonna and Child, Danube artists found more opportunities to emphasize the power of nature. Through the architecture of these subjects, Danube artists showed the irregularities and complexities of nature, as seen in Master of Mühldorf’s Annunciation—the forms melt into each other in a way that echoes the harmonious simplicity of his nature paintings.
The Danube School artists devoted themselves to the pursuit and understanding of the world around them, approaching nature with profound respect, and spiritual reverence. They developed a new graphic vocabulary in order to portray nature as alive, powerful, and resplendent. It was a highly refined aesthetic, and more importantly, one that broke with convention and the prevailing Renaissance ideals, introducing a new understanding for the role of landscape art.