Roman Ruins and Human Drama

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European landscape fans: it’s time to get your fix. An impressive collection of Richard Wilson’s 18th century paintings and drawings is currently on display at the Yale Center for British Art. It’s the first major exhibit devoted to Wilson’s work in 30 years, triumphantly timed with his 300th birthday. Until June 1, you can take 20 minutes or two hours to swap out views of Harkness and SSS for Wilson’s rolling hills and Roman ruins.

The exhibit demonstrates Wilson’s role as “the father of British landscape,” discussing not only Wilson’s inspirations, but also his own contributions to the European landscape art tradition. To accomplish this, Wilson’s work is displayed in a context of European masterpieces. Tucked into one of the exhibit’s back corners, Wilson’s “Meleager and Atalanta,” a 1770 oil painting, captures several men spearing a boar before a gnarly tree and cliff face. Turn around, and you’re face-to-face with Francesco Zuccarelli’s “A Landscape with the Story of Cadmus Killing the Dragon” (1756), in which a man, posed in a heroic stance, lances a formidable dragon straight down his throat. Thorough information panels explain that both scenes are drawn from stories in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” It’s impossible to miss the influence of Zuccarelli on Wilson’s own masterpiece. This comprehensive presentation is welcoming for visitors like me who had never heard of Wilson before, but also offers exciting parallels for long-time Wilson aficionados.

More thrilling is the human force in Wilson’s compositions. Take his 1754 painting “Rome and the Ponte Molle,” one in a series of ethereal Roman landscapes. Nearly faded out at the end of a snaking river is the city of Rome itself, a firm skyline scraping the base of the cloudy sky. On the road running along the front of the painting, two cloaked figures lean in on walking sticks, conferring as though in fear that they might be overheard. They’ve hiked out to this quiet point on the outskirts of the city to talk, and Wilson’s not telling why.

I’m more unsettled by Wilson’s “Ceyx and Alcyone” (1768). Most of the piece is consumed by swelling gray-blue clouds, breaking for just enough sun to hit the castle ruins on the cliff overhead. On the rocky shore foreground, two figures fight the wind and waves to support a woman reaching back toward the sea. Her male companion is also dragged ashore, limp, naked and dead. The human drama is stomach-twisting, the sort that you might not expect to find in an 18th-century landscape painting. Wilson, in his portrayals of Europe, not only makes you want to taste seawater or plunge your hands into the grass, but also offers the hint of some human yearning, mystery and joy.

The Richard Wilson exhibit is thoughtful and accessible for enthusiasts old and new, a successful acknowledgement of his contribution to the European landscape tradition. Go, not only to unwind while soaking in Wilson’s rural roads, decaying cities and churning seas, but also to appreciate Wilson’s gripping human focus. And if the artistic allure of his work doesn’t already have you heading for the Chapel Street gallery, then go just because the exhibit is a pleasant place to be. Warm lighting, squashy-soft chairs and soothing natural scenes on every wall — after I finished touring the exhibit, I simply didn’t want to leave. And so I curled up in a quiet corner, wrote my Daily Themes assignment, and daydreamed.

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