Goethe's own numerous drawings of landscape (as the one above) are evidence of his interest in landscape painting, but, as John Gearey (who was my Doktorvater) writes, instead of theory, instead of abstract pronouncements, Goethe's essays on art were the products of "an occasion." At the same time, as John writes, "to speak of any work of art was to speak of all art."
Thus, Goethe's essay on three paintings by the Dutch landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael (ca. 1628-1682) must be seen in this light. It is not so much a discussion of the qualities of landscape as it is a presentation, in 1816, of convictions that had been developing since his journey to Italy in 1786. Thus, the first painting Goethe discusses is The Waterfall (1660-70; National Gallery, London), which, as he writes, "presents successive periods of human history simultaneously."
When Goethe went to Italy in 1786, according to Gearey, he brought with him not only a preference but also a passion for realism in art, particularly the art of the North. He was familiar with such art from his home in Frankfurt, and he first encountered Ruisdael's paintings already in 1768 in Dresden. After Rome, Goethe's early "evolutionary" ideas about artistic creation (as expressed in the essay on the Strasbourg Cathedral) had to be fitted into a "broader framework of meaning." Though Goethe did not abandon an appreciation for "realism" in art, he now preferred "ideal" landscapes. His essay on Ruisdael praises the artist for "delighting, teaching, refreshing, and invigorating us through the health of his mind and his senses."
Goethe rejected the elegiac landscapes of Romantic artists, which reminded him too much of time's winged chariot. In his words, these were pure negations of life (Das sind ja lauter Negationen des Lebens). An example of such an "unhealthy" landscape is the one above, Cloister in the Snow, by Karl Friedrich Lessing. Goethe suggested (in a conversation with Friedrich Förster) that Lessing could improve the painting by rearranging the moon illumination in such a way as to make the viewer forget the the subject was a cemetery! The image here is a copy of Lessing's famous painting by the German artist Klaus W. Kunze, who specializes in such historical reproductions. (No free copies of this painting on the Internet!)
Picture credits: ⓒ Barbara Cushing; Goethezeitportal