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: Poetic Horizons


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The rise of landscape art in Britain was a comparatively late development. What Edward Norgate described in 1649 as that "harmless and honest recreation," which "diverts and lightens the mind" did not emerge as an important art form until the second half of the 18th century. But once established, landscape soon became synonymous with the British school. "Poetic Horizons: The Landscape Tradition in Britain, 1750-1850" traces the emergence and flowering of the British school of landscape from its origins in the topographical tradition of Canaletto and Paul Sandby to its apogee in the exquisite Romantic landscapes of Joseph Mallord William Turner. Featuring more than 200 prints, drawings, watercolors, and illustrated books, the exhibition highlights the seminal role of the graphic arts in the development of this rich and diverse tradition.Artistocratic Patronage
For much of the 18th century, Britain's leading academic theorists relegated landscape painting among the "lesser" genres, unsuited as a subject for serious art. Only history painting, displaying elevated moral principles, could "improve the mind" and "excite . . . noble sentiments," said Jonathon Richardson. Yet, despite its inferior academic status, landscape art had enjoyed aristocratic patronage since the 17th century. In Britain, the genre was dominated by Dutch and Flemish artists, who created admirable topographical views and decorative Italianate landscapes for British collectors. Despite increasing demand, few native-born landscape artists were active in Britain during the first half of the 18th century.The earliest British landscapes were mainly topographical, a tradition revitalized in the 1740s by Canaletto's elegant views of London. And while topographical landscapes remained popular throughout the century, it was the classically inspired Italianate landscape that best exemplified aristocratic taste. Grand Touring British nobility, inspired by their contact with Rome, increasingly looked to the works of great 17th-century masters of classical landscape—Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin, Gaspard Dughet, and Salvator Rosa. In response to this growing vogue, British artists began to emulate the landscapes of these Continental painters. Richard Wilson was the first native-born artist to fully recognize the intellectual and poetic potential of landscape art, effectively blending elements of the ideal with depictions of actual places in Italy and Britain. A number of Wilson's classicized landscape paintings were subsequently engraved by William Woollett, including the dramatic historical landscape Destruction of the Children of Niobe (1761), one of the most acclaimed landscape prints of the 18th century.Back to Nature
While the taste for classical landscape remained strong for much of the century, an emerging interest in naturalism was also apparent. Naturalistic landscapes by leading 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists, once neglected by British connoisseurs, were in growing demand. Despite injunctions by such academic theorists as Sir Joshua Reynolds, interest in "common nature" as a subject for serious art was increasingly evident among British artists.Thomas Gainsborough was among those who found inspiration in the intrinsic beauty of nature. His intensely poetic paintings and drawings of the English countryside, featuring rustic lovers, peasants going to market, or herdsmen with cattle, prefigured many of the ideas central to the picturesque movement of the late-18th century. His landscapes exerted a strong influence on later generations of romantic artists, most notably John Constable, who referred to Gainsborough's paintings when he remarked, "On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them."Attitudes toward landscape art and nature changed rapidly during the last 20 years of the 18th century. The rise of the picturesque movement, promulgated by William Gilpin's guides to Welsh and English scenery, greatly encouraged topographical and landscape painting and drawing, especially in watercolor. As a result, British landscape art enjoyed unprecedented popularity between 1790 and 1830.Watercolor's Power and Presence
The emergence of watercolor as an independent art form was indicative of these changes. Traditionally, watercolor had been seen as a form of drawing, valued mainly as a tonal wash for topographical views and decorative engravings. But as aesthetic standards evolved, it rapidly achieved prominence as the medium best suited to evoke the subtle effects of nature. In the hands of such pioneering landscape specialists as Paul Sandby and John Robert Cozens, watercolor became a potent and expressive medium. At the turn of the century, a new generation of landscape artists, including such key figures as Thomas Girtin and J.M.W. Turner, revolutionized the art, developing new methods of painting in pure watercolor. In turn, a succession of highly accomplished watercolor painters appeared in the first decades of the new century. Artists such as John Varley, David Cox, Peter DeWint, William Turner of Oxford, Francis Danby, and Richard Parkes Bonington made important contributions to the development of a British school of watercolor painting, a tradition unparalleled elsewhere in Europe.The Potential of Landscape Prints
During the early 19th century, printmaking became an increasingly vital component of the landscape tradition. Like watercolors, early landscape prints were primarily topographical, but these often conventional views were soon transcended by a host of masterful picturesque and romantic landscape prints. Hoping to reach a larger audience, many prominent British landscape artists, including Girtin, Turner, and Constable, published prints of their work, often in serial form.One of the most important publications of this type is J.M.W. Turner's Liber Studiorum, a series of 71 mezzotint engravings after both new and existing designs. Issued in parts between 1807 and 1819, the series of engravings was intended as a permanent visual record of Turner's achievements as a landscape painter and as a resource for younger artists. As its name implies, Turner modeled his project after Richard Earlom's widely known engravings of Claude Lorrain's Liber Veritatis (1774-1819). But unlike its predecessor, which was conceived as an inventory of landscape compositions, Turner's Liber is essentially an anthology of landscape types, with such categories as mountainous, pastoral, marine, historical, and so on. Turner etched the designs for the prints himself, enlisting professional engravers to complete the plates under his close supervision. Yet, despite its powerfully romantic statement, the project was not financially successful and was abandoned in 1823.Like Turner, John Constable recognized the expressive potential of printmaking in the service of landscape art. Between 1830 and 1832, Constable published a series of 22 mezzotint engravings entitled Various Subjects of Landscape, Characteristic of English Scenery. The series, usually known as English Landscape Scenery, was produced in collaboration with the engraver David Lucas, and as explained in the subtitle to the second edition, was "principally intended to mark the phenomena of the chiaroscuro [the using of light and shade in a pictorial work of art] of nature." Indeed, Lucas's mezzotints vividly demonstrate Constable's abiding interest in the intangible qualities of nature, particularly the ever-changing conditions of sky, light, and atmosphere. Constable envisioned the work as a summary of his career as a landscape painter, and as such, it is often regarded as a counterpart to Turner's Liber Studiorum.These extraordinary works are striking testimony to the enormous contribution of the graphic arts to the British landscape tradition. We are indeed fortunate that so many outstanding landscape prints, drawings, and watercolors of this remarkably rich tradition remain preserved today for our enjoyment and enlightenment.Dennis Michael Jon is curatorial assistant in the Department of Prints and Drawings and the organizer of this exhibition.This exhibition is on view in the Dayton Hudson Gallery from October 27, 1996 to January 19, 1997. See page 4 and the inside back cover for information about tours for the public, the hearing-impaired, and teachers, as well as a special tour series.A catalog of the works in this exhibition is on sale in the Museum Shop.Related ImagesThomas Gainsborough, Wooded Landscape with Herdsman Driving Cattle, c. 1770, black chalk and watercolor heightened with white, varnished. Gift of Mrs. Darragh Aldrich in memory of her mother.Thomas Girtin, Morpeth, Northumberland, c. 1796, watercolor over graphite, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Atherton Bean.J.M.W. Turner, Little Devil's Bridge over the Russ above Altdorft, Switzerland, from Liber Studiorum, 1809, etching and mezzotint in sepia ink. The William M. Ladd Collection, Gift of Herschel V. Jones.
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Source: Dennis Michael Jon, "Poetic Horizons: An important new exhibit traces the history of the British school of landscape art from 1750-1850," <i>Arts</i> 19, no. 9 (October 1996): 6-7.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009