Published  11/02/2014

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany

The Courtauld Gallery, London
30 January – 27 April 2014


“The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees in himself,” stated Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), one of the most iconic artists of Romanticism and the founder of German Romantic landscape painting.

This tendency towards introspection was a common theme in Romantic landscape art and, as A Dialogue with Nature illustrates, so too was the direct observation of the natural world. With just 26 works, this exhibition is not a major or in-depth endeavour, but does showcase some lesser-known examples of the movement’s output between the 1760s and 1840s.

Landscape painting had long played second fiddle to history painting. The latter sought to instruct and inform, while the former was required to be little more than pleasing to the eye. Bucolic scenes of shepherds with their flocks, or idyllic depictions of rural life were sentimental evocations that harked back to Classical notions of Arcadian paradises, not unlike picture postcards whose images have been edited. In the hands of the Romantic painters, however, landscape art took on a new depth of meaning.

For Friedrich, landscape art was concerned with religion, self-reflection and solitude. The genre, he believed, should reflect both the hand of the divine in the universal fabric of creation and the internal emotions of the individual, who, through the power of imagination, could become one with the nature. Through art, Friedrich sought to convey the sense of awe a sensitive viewer might experience when confronted with the vast and bewildering scope of nature; his aim was, in other words, to evoke the sublime. In more general terms, Romanticism is often defined in opposition to the academic Enlightenment ideals of Neoclassicism, a view that is oversimplistic and somewhat misleading. The movement did not represent an outright rejection of science and reason; rather it added deep, existential meaning to vast natural vistas and the forces of nature, employing a great deal of technical knowhow and insight to capture natural forms. Romanticism in art, however, remains a difficult movement to characterise as it encompasses a great many styles, subjects and philosophies in its various incarnations throughout Europe and America, including scenes ranging from the apocalyptic to the serene, the eerie to the majestic and the precise to the painterly.

This modest little exhibition, consisting of two and a half small rooms of watercolours, drawings and oil sketches attempts to impose some order on this varied movement by limiting its scope to the paintings of Britain and Germany. Comparisons are drawn by placing the energetic, looser styles of JMW Turner (1775-1851) and Samuel Palmer (1805-81) alongside the more restrained, detailed studies of Karl Friedrich Lessing (1808-80) and Friedrich. This comparison is perhaps best illustrated with two moonlit scenes. Turner’s On Lake Lucerne, Looking Towards Fluelen (c1841?) is a watercolour study depicting the hazy outline of a rock face barely discernible in the mist. The moon, a white circle of gouache, shines out through the translucent layers of blue and grey watercolour. This study is clearly intended as a sketch, but nonetheless bears all the hallmarks of Turner’s later oils.

Friedrich’s Moonlit Landscape (before 1808?) is a more finished work, similar in size to Turner’s, but noting almost every individual leaf and blade of grass. The full moon shines out over a pond, sitting like the pupil of an eye between two banks of glowing cloud. It is thought that the picture was intended to be lit from behind by candlelight, heightening the image’s mystic intensity. A religious statue stands silhouetted between two trees, reminding us of Friedrich’s propensity towards grand symbolism in his art and his search for the divine in nature.

Similar comparisons are drawn between Palmer’s Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (c1828) and Lessing’s Landscape with a Cemetery and a Church (1837). The great oak in Palmer’s expressive study and the finely drawn oak in Lessing’s painting are anthropomorphised symbols of British and German nationalism respectively, while also providing striking reminders of mortality in their gnarled forms and dying limbs. The eerie moonlight of Lessing’s drawing echoes the unearthly yellow glow of the horizon in Palmer’s study, bearing witness to a shared sensibility between two Romantic artists from separate nations.

The smallest room contains studies of clouds by Johann Georg Von Dillis (1759-1841) and John Constable (1776-1837), illustrating the impulse among artists at this time to capture the ephemeral aspects of nature without concern for the rigorous, studio-based practices that had gone before. Dillis produced about 150 cloud studies, using white chalk on coloured paper to quickly note down the changing forms. Constable – ever the perfectionist – spent several decades making cloud studies, recording the date, time and weather conditions on the reverse of his pictures. In the pursuit of accurate observations then, both German and British artists found common ground in a shared fascination with the most fleeting forces of the natural world.

A Dialogue with Nature is not a groundbreaking exhibition and offers no new insights into the nature of Romanticism. In fact many of the works border on the twee. The chalk drawing Wooded Upland Landscape with Cottage, Figures and Cows (c1785) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), although used as an example of a precursor to the movement, more closely resembles a still from a Disney film than an inspiring model for Romanticism. But among the sepia watercolours of country roads and run-of-the-mill sketches of cottage farms hides the occasional treasure that serves to tease out the loftier aims of this varied and equivocal genre. 

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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