Though John Constable’s “Cloud Studies” have always been associated with British Romanticism, a group of earlier cloud studies by Dutch painters on display at the Yale Center for British Art show that artists across the English Channel were also studying the heavens.
Figure drawings, portraits, landscapes and cloud studies from five European countries are on display at the Yale Center for British Art as part of the exhibition, “Varieties of Romantic Experience: Drawings from the Collection of Charles Ryskamp.” The exhibition, which features 215 works of art from the collection of Charles Ryskamp GRD ’56, former director of The Frick Collection in New York and professor emeritus of English at Princeton University, explores the dialogue between continental Romantic painters and their British counterparts in the period from 1789 to 1848.
Though artists on the two sides of the Channel were often not familiar with the work of other painters, their paintings display curious patterns of similarities, suggesting that Romanticism was a global phase in the history of art, said curator Matthew Hargraves.
Ryskamp’s collection includes pieces from Denmark, Holland, Germany, France and England. Hargraves said the geographic diversity of the work highlights the international nature of Romanticism as a movement.
“Art of this international context can truly get rid of the marginalization and isolation British Art received from the rest of the world,” Hargraves said. “Romanticism shows the culture of traveling, touring, reproducing and letting it be known.”
But English professor Paul Fry, who teaches “Romantic Literature and Painting,” said many of the paintings at the exhibition come from the Early Victorian period after 1848 and do not represent Romanticism.
Fredric Sorrieu’s “Woodland Scene with a Cavern,” for example, is one of the works which cannot be called Romantic in its true sense, Fry said.
“The more detail you get, the later you are in the century,” Fry said, explaining that Romantic painters avoided too much detail in their paintings. Sorrieu’s work, however, is emblematic of the “fever of reality” that consumed European artists later in the century, making them add minute details to their work, Fry said.
Though Fry said many of the important Romanticists are represented at the exhibition, he added that the works on display are not always the best known.
Cornelius Varley’s “Harlech Castle” — a sketch of a ruined Welsh Castle — is a definite outlier among the works of Varley, and Caspar David Friedrich’s “Studies of a Cottage with Mountain Top with Figures” lacks the characteristic rich colors of Friedrich’s famous works, Fry said.
Ryskamp admitted in the exhibition catalogue that there is no single work that embodies the ideals of Romanticism, but added that the exhibition will start a dialogue on the connections between the work of different painters working in Europe at the same time.
“Bringing these drawings together may highlight the direct connections between artists, who worked in an age when art took on a distinctively collaborative aspect,” Ryskamp said. “Above all, it is hoped that these drawings, when taken together, will serve to demonstrate the real cosmopolitanism of Romantic art and the remarkable depth and breadth of the many varieties of Romantic experience.”
The exhibition is organized around the themes of nature, religious revival, human civilization and imagination, all explored within the framework of Romanticism. One wall is dedicated to human figures: Portraits of landowners and sketches of peasants are juxtaposed to oil paintings of aristocrats, pointing to the contrast between the representation of lay people and the social elite through different media, Hargraves said.
Nude sketches and anatomy studies are another part of the exhibition. While the practice of using nude models had been in place in England for over 200 years, The Continental Academy of Copenhagen took the idea and started using nude models for figure drawing, Hargraves said.
Also on display is a collection of portraits and drawings by William Blake, who immortalized Romanticism not only through poetry, but also with his brush strokes.