Thursday, June 12, 2014

Romantic Landscapes

John Robert Cozens, A Ruined Fort near Salerno, ca. 1782 (The Courtauld Gallery)
I went with a friend yesterday afternoon to the Morgan Library, which is hosting a show (recently at the Courtauld in London) entitled A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany. It features such prominent artists as Britain's J.M.W. Turner and Samuel Palmer as well as German Romantics Caspar David Friedrich, Carl Philipp Fohr, and Karl Friedrich Lessing. Lessing, as I discovered, was the most popular landscape artist of his day.

Carl Philipp Fohr, The Ruins of Hohenbaden, 1814-15 (The Morgan Library)
 The Germans and the Brits were pioneers in producing a new kind of landscape that, according to the catalogue,  "abandoned the formulas of the past in favor of a revitalized representation of the natural world." Drawings, watercolors, and oil sketches, all from the collections of the Library and of the Courtauld Gallery, capture "the new sensibility" from its beginnings in the Enlightenment to its "full flowering" in the art of Turner and Friedrich. I like the contrasting versions of towers in the above two sketches. According to the Courtauld site, the origins of "Romantic landscape painting" are in the 1760. Part of the change from the earlier style of landscape was the practice of working en plein air. In The Sorrows of Young Werther, first published in 1774, we see our hero drawing out of doors. So, early on Goethe was part of this phenomenon. I once asked a curator at the Frick if he knew what Werther's landscape style might have been like; he was brought up short by the question.

Samuel Palmer, Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (The Morgan Library)
Probably my favorite painter among the Brits is Samuel Palmer. The lovely crooked tree above reminds me of a conversation concerning picturesque landscape between Marianne Dashwood and Edward Ferrars in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. The exchange seems a perfect encapsulation of Romantic and Enlightenment sensibilities.

"It is very true," said Marianne, "that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning."

"I am convinced," said Edward, "that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower—and a troop of tidy, happy villages please me better than the finest banditti in the world."

Marianne looked with amazement at Edward, with compassion at her sister. Elinor only laughed.

My favorite artist among the Germans is Johann Georg von Dillis, who is represented at the Morgan by an oil sketch of a small, gnarled tree, not the kind of landscape I usually associate with him.

I was surprised to hear from my friend that he is reading, in English Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre. He expressed dismay that he found it very difficult to "get into." Well, every morning I have been reading a small section of the novel, and I am having something of the same experience. Still, I persevere.

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