Cox exhibit opens at YCBA

Stormy skies abound in a new exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art featuring the work of David Cox, a mid–19th century watercolor painter. The retrospective, entitled “Sun, Wind and Rain: The Art of David Cox,” includes over 100 of his watercolor and oil paintings.

This collaboration between the British Art Center and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery marks the first time Cox’s work has been shown in the United States. Scott Wilcox, the curator of prints and drawing for the British Art Center, is the in-house curator for the exhibit and has spent the last 20 years studying his work.

“Cox is not an artist that has received the reception I think he should have,” Wilcox said. “He works within the same frame of mind as [J.M. William] Turner, [John] Constable and [William] Wordsworth.”

He hopes that viewers of the collection will find Cox an interesting figure who fits within the larger framework of romantic art.

“I was unfamiliar with David Cox before I heard about this exhibit and have since discovered how brilliant a watercolorist he was,” said Samantha Gale ’10, head tour guide at the British Art Gallery. “I can’t wait to examine these works in detail.”

The exhibit chronologically displays Cox’s works from 1821 to 1859. Cox’s style evolved greatly throughout his life, but most of his subjects remain within the realm of countryside and the role of this landscape, as Wilcox explained.

“He makes a wonderful use of light and atmosphere because he was mainly concerned with the dramatic effect that weather has within the painting,” he said.

Cox’s career began in London in 1804, when he was elected to the Society of Painters in Water Colours. This exhibit includes his journal “Treatise on Landscape Painting and Effect in Water Colours,” which he wrote in parts during 1813 and 1814. Wilcox called this treatise “one of the great drawing manuals of his time.”

During the 1820s, Cox revealed much larger ambitions. He painted several large-scale watercolors that play on themes that are different from his previous undertakings. This includes “Carthage: Aeneas and Achates,” a work with Greek references that stands in stark contrast to his traditional countryside scenes.

Despite this period, Cox never strayed far from painting the natural world of England that surrounded him. Part of the exhibit also includes pieces from his six-week trip to France. Even in these urban environments it is apparent that Cox’s main concern was to evoke the mood that only the natural world can create.

The works also bear evidence of Cox’s dabbling in oil painting. Though these oil works were not well received by the art community at the time, Wilcox believes that he showed great progress with this skill as he developed it.

In addition to the works by Cox, the exhibit also contains some pieces by his son, David Cox Jr. Their style is so apparently similar that critics still debate whether the artist is father or son.

“His son truly followed in the footsteps of his father, using the same subjects and style,” Wilcox said. “The exhibit leaves the question of who painted it open-ended.”

Though he may never be as well-known as other household names of his time, Wilcox attests that Cox’s work is nonetheless important and its beauty is readily apparent.

“Cox is a very significant figure in the development of watercolor and landscape,” said Victoria Osborne, the curator from the Birmingham Museum who worked with Wilcox on the exhibit. “With this retrospective, I hope we can reassess his work and appreciate him for the great watercolor painter that he was.”

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