The merging of two schools of thought has often been met with anxiety and excitement. The merging of 18th century Britain high and low art in the form of historical landscape painting is no exception.
This semester, the Yale Center for British Art presents “Nobleness and Grandeur,” a collection that documents the development of historical landscape painting from its humble beginnings to its profound influence on the romantic period. In addition, it celebrates the pivotal role of landscape art in shaping a political and artistic identity for 18th century Britain.
The focus of “history painting” was the presentation of the human figure in various states of emotion. The hope of this high art was to provoke thought among viewers and thus call into question moral issues for the betterment of British society. Landscape painting on the other hand was the work of the common artist and denigrated as a base form of art. Richard Wilson, using a landscape format and employing the 18th century fascination with the countryside, created the hybrid of “historical landscape.” Wilson painted human figures in states where they were forced to contend with either their insignificance in the midst of an expansive landscape or their inability to divorce themselves completely from their surroundings.
When the two genres, the historical and landscape, combine to form Wilson’s hybrid, their respective capacities come together to provide insights into the human condition.
Populated by Wilson’s original works and those of his followers, the exhibit showcases a myriad of possibilities in the relationship that man can have with his natural surroundings.
John Wood’s “The Hermit,” a line engraving that is a replica of Salvator Rosa’s painting, presents a man garbed in a monk-like cloak, laying prostrate on a mountainside, with the wind-blown trees in the background reflecting what one can only assume must be his facial expression. You see man’s inability to deal with the surrounding nature that diminishes his power, rendering him as inconsequential as the blades of grass at the mercy of the wind.
“The Happy Cottagers,” a line engraving by Joseph Grozer, shows a family in various positions in the front yard of their cottage. The home appears to be literally carved out of the massive tree whose branches serve as an extension of the cottagers’ humble shelter. The work presents a less conflicted relationship between man and nature than in “The Hermit.” Man has achieved some level of acceptance at his inferior position relative to nature and realizes the infinite assortment of nature’s resources.
Further depictions of content farm workers present an image of rural harmony which belie the reality of the widespread political unrest and disorder in Britain at the time. In contrast to “The Happy Cottagers,” “Pastoral Scene,” a painting by Claude Lorraine, shows people at leisure. Their relationship with the landscape is not defined by their occupations but by an intimate and honest connection to nature itself.
In the romantic period, the employment of the historical landscape painting technique moved from the literal juxtaposition of man and nature to the more figurative representation of their coalescence. This development served to illuminate the fundamental truth that man and nature are inextricably linked, a truth that must have been evident to Wilson, clearly a man of “Nobleness and Grandeur.”