“Luminous Worlds: British Works on Paper, 1760-1900” at the Legion of Honor is more than an addendum to the de Young‘s major exhibition, “J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free.” By culling relevant works from the holdings of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts and private S.F. collections, the show shines a spotlight on not only the drawings, watercolors and oil sketches of Turner but also on those of contemporaries like William Blake, John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough.
Their range of strategies, subjects, techniques and approaches to light, rendered in so many evocative, elusive ways, touch on the wealth of art making in this period. While many are now familiar with the works of Turner due to the current exhibit at the de Young, the show introduces viewers to a whole range of late 18th to 19th century British watercolor artists. For those who those who think that 19th century British art was limited to genre and kitsch, the works on view will come as a revelation.
“Luminous Worlds” gathers about 40 works, ranging widely in subject matter and technique, that reveal the richness and versatility of British artistic production over the course of a century. The exhibition reflects the 18th-century vogue for portraiture and caricature; the rise of landscape painting, especially in watercolors; the Romantic engagement with themes from mythology and literature; and 19th-century Orientalism. Highlights include Gainsborough’s “Upland Landscape with Figures, Riders, and Cattle” (ca. 1780–1790), Sir Thomas Lawrence’s “Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons” (ca. 1790), Blake’s “The Complaint of Job” (ca. 1786), and Turner’s “View of Kenilworth Castle (ca. 1830).”
In the early 1700s watercolor painting was seen as an amateur pastime unworthy of true painters, but toward the end of the century British artists started to make watercolors designed to compete directly with oil paintings. They were bigger, with strong colors and dramatic compositions. The “exhibition watercolor” attracted new audiences of collectors and produced some of the most technically complex and powerful works in the medium.
Turner was not the only artist who rebelled against highly finished and sharply delineated figurative work. John Constable also quietly rebelled against the artistic culture that taught artists to use their imagination to compose their pictures rather than nature itself. He told a friend, “When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture”.
Although Constable produced paintings throughout his life for the “finished” picture market of patrons and R.A. exhibitions, constant refreshment in the form of on-the-spot studies was essential to his working method. He was never satisfied with following a formula. “The world is wide”, he wrote, “no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other.”
Constable’s watercolors were also remarkably free for their time: the almost mystical “Stonehenge, 1835, ” with its double rainbow, is often considered to be one of the greatest watercolors ever painted. When he exhibited it in 1836, Constable appended a text to the title: “The mysterious monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath, as much unconnected with the events of past ages as it is with the uses of the present, carries you back beyond all historical records into the obscurity of a totally unknown period.”
Constable once wrote, “My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge, and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up”.He could never have imagined how influential his honest techniques would turn out to be. Constable’s art inspired not only contemporaries like Géricault and Delacroix, but the Barbizon School, and the French impressionists of the late nineteenth century.
Thomas Gainsborough was one of the most popular artists of the 18th Century, most famous today for “The Blue Boy.” Though much of Gainsborough’s income came from painting portraits, his real passion was for landscapes. The art historian Michael Rosenthal describedGainsborough as “one of the most technically proficient and, at the same time, most experimental artists of his time”. He was noted for the speed with which he applied paint, and he worked more from observations of nature (and of human nature) than from application of formal academic rules. The poetic sensibility of his paintings caused Constable to say, “On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them.”
William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form “what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language.” Nevertheless, the works on view are exquisite examples of engraving combined with hand colored prints.
Samuel Palmer is another unjustly unknown artists, arguable one of the most creative artists of the 19th century. Palmer became an artist at a young age and was strongly influenced throughout his career by the work of his friend and mentor William Blake. Palmer’s early work was partly shaped by his interest in the ‘primitive’ artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth century. For a time, he lived in the Kent village of Shoreham, whose surrounding countryside became his ‘Valley of Vision’. After this he married and spent time in Italy; following his return to London he worked in watercolor and took up etching. In his later years, Palmer suffered a series of personal hardships – including the death of his son – and ended his life living as a recluse.
Legion of Honor Through November 2015.