A Dialogue with Nature:

Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany

at the Courtauld Gallery

 

By Anna Leung

This exhibition, modest though it is – barely three rooms containing 26 drawings, sketches and watercolours – encompasses a decisive moment in Western art that takes us from the later part of the eighteenth century into the early decades of the nineteenth and anticipates both the Barbizon school and Impressionism. It traces the development of a new sensitivity in landscape painting that embraces two seeming oppositional tendencies: the romantic, with its attendant notion of the Sublime; and the realist, which introduced the idea of ‘pleine air’ painting directly from nature, as in the cloud studies of Constable, Von Dillis and Dahl.  Politically, it was a period of great social upheaval. The French Revolution established a secular government in France, which made a profound impact on German cultural circles, which at first welcomed Napoleon’s ‘liberation’ army, and in England where artists and poets, such as Blake and Wordsworth, prematurely celebrated the Revolution before succumbing to the disillusion occasioned by the Terror. Equally important was the political and cultural backlash to against the French revolution. This reaction had much to do with the rise of the idea of nationhood, which in Germany expressed itself as an almost mystic yearning for the fatherland that would only be secured at the end of the nineteenth century, together with a strong religious impulse in reaction to French universalist secularism. Given this scenario, one might be forgiven for expecting history painting to remain in the ascendency it had enjoyed from the Renaissance up to this period. But in England and Germany this is not the case. On the contrary, what characterises this period is the eclipse of history by landscape painting and with this change a certain democratisation of painting techniques with regard to academic rules that can be related to two tendencies; an emphasis on subjectivity that tended to go hand in hand with an elevated notion of the artist as genius, and the need to be different or original. This, then, is the beginning of the notion of the misunderstood artist ahead of his time; Friedrich and Turner, now seen as proto–modernists, belonging to this category.

A measure of the conscious promotion of a national art in Germany was the return of the linear style associated primarily with Dürer’s prints. This constitutes one of the salient differences between British and German landscapists: the Germans emphasised clarity of line and a certain medievalism that the Pre-Raphaelites were to inherit through the Nazarenes, while the British, especially Alexander Cozens (actually born in Russia but educated in England) and Turner were more interested in painterly techniques and the evocations of feelings rather than the correct description of topographical details. But what we have also been given to peruse is the gradual progression from what was termed the picturesque into the romantic.  Up to this point, most landscapists, including Turner, emulated Claude Lorraine and their landscapes depicted scenes reminiscent of Claude’s classic depictions of an arcadia bathed in an almost numinous light.

 

Aware of the lesser status of landscape painting in an academic hierarchy that was dominated by history painting, Claude inspired paintings are inhabited by small figures designed to give the landscape a pseudo narrative but also to enliven it with ‘repoussoirs’ or markers whose function it is to guide the eye, help create a narrative, and reinforce the illusion of depth. Most landscapists continued to respect this strategy even when moving away from the harmonic beauty of the claudian idyll and towards the romantic sublime. Wagner’s Wooded Landscape with Stream and Oxcart on Road, 1760’s still evokes a pastoral scene while faithfully reproducing everyday details reminiscent of the Northern Renaissance that act as markers to guide the viewer’s eye. It is probable that like Gainsborough, who prided himself on composing his landscapes entirely from his imagination which he credited as being more conceptual, Wagner worked in the studio and may have constructed his scenes from table top models using stones and pebbles, leaves and small branches to suggest a landscape. Hackert, on the other hand, a German artist who with his brother worked primarily in Italy, continued to use figures as markers but shocked his contemporaries by sketching on site from nature and moreover captured something of the romantic impulse in his magical treatment of the waterfalls in his View of the Villa of Maecenas and the Falls at Tivoli 1783.

Galvanising these developments was the rejection of the Enlightenment, especially its emphasis on reason and order, that in England and Germany was associated with the secular ideals of the French Revolution. Ranged against the Enlightenment’s paean to mechanistic determinism that upheld a positivistic belief in the possibility of social perfectibility was Nature with its unpredictability and its uncontrollable power.  The romantic artist and poet attempted to reconnect to a vitalist and organicist tradition by which at one time all aspects of man and nature were linked, and they took as their mission the re-enchantment of a disenchanted world increasingly threatened by industrialisation and urbanisation and stripped bare of poetry by the mechanistic methods of the sciences. This accusation was specifically levelled against Newton who had been accorded semi-divine status by enlightenment thinkers but was regarded by Blake and Keats in England and the poet Novalis in Germany as an anathema. Appreciation of the concept of the Sublime went much further, turning into an aesthetic that went so far as to exalt the ideas of pain and danger. It was defined by Burke and Kant by its very lack of definition, by its formlessness and boundlessness and the effect this had on the viewer. And this is where mountains come into the picture, literally and metaphorically.

For centuries mountains had been regarded as places of horror to be shunned by the traveller, their scenery associated with ruins, chaos and catastrophe. In the second half of the 17th century, the Italian Baroque painter Salvatore Rosa began to transform this dreadfulness into an agreeable type of horror actively cultivated by intrepid travellers whose experiences presaged the emergence of a new aesthetic sensibility associated not with beauty but with the sublime. Confronted with unsubdued nature, the romantic artist was filled with awe, a sentiment close to a religious attitude of surrender to a power greater than man. Alexander Cozens is probably the first artist to anticipate this change of attitude. Employed as an art master and author of a pedagogic study entitled An Essay to Facilitate the Invention of Landscape his ideas had a ground-breaking impact on the art of landscape painting. He suggested, among other things, the method of using near-abstract blots that, much like Leonardo’s stains in damp walls etc., would excite the imagination to body forth totally subjective scenes. It is disappointing that these do not feature in the exhibition, but one can see from his son John Robert Cozen’s watercolours that he benefitted from his father’s teachings and consequently revolutionised landscape painting by abandoning Sandby’s topographical accuracy to concentrate on scenery as vehicle for emotion.  Moreover if we compare Cozen’s A Ruined Fort near Salerno c.1782 with Fohr’s The Ruins of Hohenbaden 1814 we immediately grasp the difference between English and German landscape painting. Both in their different ways exponents of the sublime, they share a common subject in the ruined castle. Fohr, who was a member of the Nazarenes, invests the scene with the precision of detail typical of the northern tradition, his style harkening back to the medieval period which became a touchstone for many of his contemporaries, e.g. Rehbenitz’s Monk Crossing a Bridge c.1826-30. The castle in his watercolour is besieged by trees and shrubs indicating the inevitable triumph of nature over the paltry endeavours of man to wrest mastery over it. Cozens tells much the same story, emphasising the irreversible passing of time, but by contrast allows his brush much more freedom, using colour to establish a sombre but elegiac mood that is dramatised by the encroaching darkness that seems to gather around the mountain. By collapsing the foreground and distance the middle ground is virtually excluded thus heightening a sense of drama and marking the insignificance of man’s presence in nature.

The curators of this exhibition repeatedly use contrasting works to illustrate their hypothesis.  Palmer’s Oak Tree and Beach from 1828 is compared to Lessing’s Landscape with Cemetery and Church 1837, a theme much favoured by the romantics. Of the two, Lessing’s seems the most haunted, moonlight picking out the whiteness of the tombstones and a gigantic tree dominating the scene with its gnarled and twisted branches. But common to both artists is the massiveness of these trees that are subject to the anthropomorphic treatment so favoured by the Romantics. However, the distinction between the two nations is not that simple, and while Friedrich’s delicate and detailed sketch of The Jakobkirche in Griefswald as a ruin, which was definitely  composed from his imagination since the church in his home town was still intact, confirms this difference in approach, Kobell’s Landscape near Munich with storm clouds  is obviously sketched from nature and his ability to capture the effects of weather, the impression  of the wind in the trees and the fitfulness of the sun suggested with the use of rapid dry brush strokes that cut across its face testify to his direct study of nature. The cloudscapes too are characteristic of the Romantic landscape, their ever changing forms presenting the artist with a real challenge. Constable, von Dillis and Dahlen all made direct studies of clouds, noting down times of day as well as the date, and while these are empirical sketches that attempt to capture the movement of the skies in their lack of definition they represent a romantic tendency that comes close to the sublime. Von Dillis completed 150 such studies from 1810-20 using white chalk on a blue background, which was also Constable’s starting point for his meteorological studies.

This link between the romantic perception of nature and the Romantic perception of the divine is most apparent in Friedrich’s painting, though his paintings seem to undercut the dichotomy between Romanticism and realism.  His religious or mystic impulse is communicated through an acuity of vision not based on ‘pleine aire’ observation but painted in the solitude of his extremely bare studio. This is because Friedrich insisted that ‘the artist shouldn’t only paint what he sees before him but also what he sees within himself’ and was able to reconcile a typically Northern longing for transcendence with a naturalistic approach to landscape to create images of timelessness and ambiguity. There is also a certain stillness and simplicity about his work that is compounded by his rejection of academic conventions, which he dismissed as ‘the crutches of art.’ In Landscape on Rugen with Shepherds and Flocks c.1809-10, for instance, Friedrich presents the viewer with a calm breadth of vision that realised his aim of containing details within an overall sense of unity in which no one element was to be subordinate to another, which in itself is modern. This absence of academic rhetoric reinstates his proposition that: ‘the only true source of art is our heart,’ thereby reconciling two seemingly incompatible approaches, the observation of nature and an inner vision which is at the heart of Romanticism. Turner achieved a similar synthesis but using very different techniques and a totally different sensibility.

Friedrich and Turner occupy the heart of the exhibition with two contrasting moonlit paintings. Unlike Friedrich’s contemplative scenes Turner’s landscapes are invested with drama. Three in all and painted between the first and fourth decades of the nineteenth century, they depict Alpine landscapes based on ‘pleine aire’ pencil sketches, the last one exhibiting a strong urge towards simplification and abstraction that met with a fair amount of ridicule and bewilderment. Like Friedrich, Turner respected the features of his original sketches, but used his powers of imagination to simplify and dramatise the view, emphasising contrasts and heightening the impression of Alpine grandeur contrasted to the diminutive signs of human habitation in the valleys. On Lake Lucerne, Looking towards Fluelen, c1840 shows to what degree Turner had abandoned nearly all topographical details, and indeed form, in order to evoke a mood. The mountains surrounding the lake are barely suggested, and the whole scene is suffused with a bluish tone. The light of the moon, half concealed by layers of mist and mirrored in the rippling surface of the lake, creates a landscape that shares the visionary intensity of Friedrich’s moonlit landscape despite the difference in their treatment of their common subject matter. Friedrich’s is far more religious in its symbolism. The moon is formed by a piece of blank paper inserted behind a hole in the picture which suggests that the original sketch would have been seen as a so-called transparent lit from behind by a candle to reinforce the sense of mystery that clothes the scene. The inclusion of the religious figure among the trees suggests a link between the figure and the moon, with the moon as giver of light and nature as an intermediary between the human and the divine, an idea that is central to Romanticism.

 

What this exhibition demonstrates is that despite differences in technique, the English emphasis on colour and the German focus on detailed observation of form, what brings them together in this dialogue with nature is a shared notion of the fragility of man compared to the awesomeness of nature, and the ability of the landscape painter to reveal higher truths that  in Ruskin’s words  communicate ‘the far higher and deeper truth of mental vision, rather than that of physical facts.’

 

©Anna Leung March 2014

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.

 

The exhibition A Dialogue with Nature:

Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany was the Courtauld Gallery in London from

 

30 January - 27 April 2014. It is now at the Morgan Library & Museum through September 7, 2014.

Photos (from top):

 

John Robert Cozens (British, 1752–1797)

A Ruined Fort Near Salerno, c. 1782 Graphite, watercolor and opaque watercolor

The Courtauld Gallery

 

Johann Georg Wagner (German, 1744–1767)

Wooded Landscape with Stream and Oxcart on Road, 1760s

Pen and brown ink, black chalk and gray and brown wash

The Courtauld Gallery

 

Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775–1851)

Mont Blanc, from above Courmayeur, c. 1810 Watercolor and graphite

The Courtauld Gallery

 

Thomas Girtin (British, 1775–1802)

The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, 1800

Gray wash, over graphite

The Morgan Library & Museum, Thaw Collection

 

Carl Philipp Fohr (German, 1795–1818)

The Ruins of Hohenbaden, 1814/15

Watercolor

The Morgan Library & Museum, Thaw Collection

 

Samuel Palmer (British, 1805–1881)

Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park, c. 1828

Pen and brown ink, graphite, watercolor, opaque watercolor and gum glaze

The Morgan Library & Museum, Thaw Collection

 

Caspar David Friedrich (German, 1774–1840) Landscape on Rügen with Shepherds and Flocks, 1809/1810

Pen and black ink, brown wash, graphite, and opaque white watercolor

The Morgan Library & Museum, Thaw Collection

 

Images courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

 

 

 

Summer '14          Kara Walker, A Subtlety          Dream Cars          A Dialogue with Nature