The Morgan Library and Museum has teamed up with London’s Courtauld Institute of Art to present A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany. The first in a series of collaborative projects between the two museums, this summertime exhibition teases midtown museumgoers with depictions of Europe’s forests and countryside, majestic Alpine vistas and wondrous views of waterfalls and lakes, a vivid reminder of where we are not.
An artistic movement in Europe that celebrated sublime nature, Romanticism was a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment’s rationality. With more than thirty landscapes on display here, ranging from 18th century pre-Romantic scenes to Turner’s late Alpine watercolors, exhibition organizers say the British and German works in this show “offer a fresh look at stylistic similarities and differences in the approaches of the two schools.”
“Wooded Upland Landscape with Cottage, Figures, and Cow,” ca. 1785, one of two works here by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), is a highpoint of the exhibition. This invented country scene, included because exhibition organizers say it is “representative of the type of landscape drawing most prized in the later eighteenth century … from which Romanticism sprang,” is made with black chalk. A country road, cottage and rolling hills are described with lyrical lines that float on an underlayer of stumped-on silvery tones.
In German artist Jakob Philipp Hackert’s (1737–1807) “ View of the Villa of Maecenas and the Falls at Tivoli,” 1783, a large, caramel-colored ink drawing, Roman ruins are perched atop a cliff surrounded by waterfalls. Spray from the falls seems to fill this sheet with atmosphere. Finely rendered leaves and rocks in the foreground elegantly frame the drawing. The landscapes of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), the French Baroque master who also spent much of his career painting in Italy, seem to have influenced Hackert.
British artist John Robert Cozens (1752-1797) met Hackert in Naples in 1782 and, like his German colleague, Cozens made drawings of the Italian landscape. “A Ruined Fort Near Salerno,” ca. 1782, a moody, blue-toned watercolor, has scratched-in highlights giving the picture a dreamlike light. The scale in this watercolor is disorienting- an enormous mountain looms behind the crumbling fort while tiny sailboats can be made out in a lake below. An underappreciated artist, Cozens’ career was cut short by mental illness.
Curator Jennifer Tonkovich says Samuel Palmer’s (1805-1881) “Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park,” ca. 1828 is “the highlight” of this exhibition. This drawing, given to the Morgan in 2006, was made a few years after Palmer met poet and painter William Blake. Given pride of place here, Palmer’s drawing of an oak tree was bought at auction by Eugene V. Thaw, in consultation with Ms. Tonkovich, for $1.5 million in 2000. In this drawing the bark of the oak tree is described with spirals, scribbles, dots and dashes. Ms. Tonkovich calls it a “visionary” piece that moves beyond the “simply descriptive.”
Four watercolors by British Romantic artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) round out the show. Turner, influenced by John Robert Cozens’ expressive landscapes, traveled Europe throughout his life, filling sketchbooks and making watercolors on tours of Wales, Scotland, Switzerland, Italy and France. “Mr. Turner,” 2014, a film written and directed by Mike Leigh that premiered at Cannes in May, focusing on the artist’s late career, a period marked by eccentric behavior and hazy, luminous paintings, is set to open this fall. According to exhibit organizers, “On Lake Lucerne, Looking Towards Fluelen,” c. 1841, a late work on view here, exemplifies a “major shift in Turner’s approach,” rejecting “topographical specificity” in favor of the “effects of light and atmosphere.”
Traveling through Europe, the romantic British and German artists here sought to express the transcendental beauty and power of nature in drawings of blasted trees, cloud studies, birch forests, meandering rivers, Mount Vesuvius erupting, even in a sketchbook drawing of an open window by composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). Though we have to wait until October for Leigh’s biopic on Britain’s “painter of light,” this small exhibition is certainly of more interest than most summer blockbusters.
A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany, on view through September 7, 2014, The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, 212-685-0008, www.themorgan.org
More information about Xico Greenwald's work can be found at xicogreenwald.com