Limited to the cramped cabin of an 18th-century ship, artist William Hodges observed the panoramic beauty outside his window to find inspiration for his paintings. He tolerated the motion of the sea and the humidity hostile to his canvas to capture exotic locales in images that would eventually be brought back to England. Little did Hodges know that his paintings would end up in an exhibition devoted completely to his legacy, entitled “William Hodges, 1744-1797: The Art of Exploration” now on view at the Yale Center for British Art.
The only American venue for Hodges’ works, “Exploration” takes visitors around the world, tracing Hodges’s journey with renowned explorer Captain James Cook. Traveling with Cook, Hodges rendered landscape paintings of far-flung locales. Organized geographically, the exhibition allows visitors to follow the path Hodges took around the world: island-hopping in the South Pacific, sweeping around the southern coast of Australia toward Antarctica, visiting the British colony of India, and finally returning to England through Hodges’ painting.
In this diverse collection of pieces, Hodges alternates between the style of topographical landscape painting, which accurately portrays the features of a visual space, and that of ideal painting, in which real-life places provide the setting for classical and biblical characters.
Regardless of the style, Hodges proves to be an exceptionally versatile and talented artist. In “Tahiti Revisited,” he portrays the peaceful, blue-sky scene of Tahitian bathers floating idly in tide pools framed by palm trees and mountains in the background. “Storm on the Ganges with Mrs. Hastings Near the Colgong Rocks” alludes to more philosophical themes, depicting a crew of sailors braving rough waves and fierce weather as a rainbow forms in the distance.
The intriguing “View in Pickersgill Harbour, Dusky Bay Sound, New Zealand” superficially shows a weary sailor stumbling from the lush greenery of the island back to his ship. But as the piece’s caption reveals, an x-ray of the piece shows that Hodges had painted over an aborted composition illustrating Antarctic icebergs.
Though the artist’s imagery is powerful on its own, the most striking element of the exhibition is its demonstration of art as a potent historiographical instrument. Hodges’ paintings suggest the Orientalized, exoticized notions Europeans held towards the “non-Western world,” through subtle details such as the unrealistically spiny palm trees he paints in his view of the Rajmahal Hills of India.
Hodges also experimented outside his role as professional landscape artist with anthropological sketches of the people he met. These drawings of the denizens of the South Pacific offer insight into the European sociological ranking of indigenous peoples: the artist utilized statelier poses to depict the well regarded people of Tahiti and more grotesque views of the natives of New Caledonia.
Humiliated into retirement when a British duke openly disapproved of one of Hodges’ more controversial pieces, the painter’s works had been damned to obscurity. “The Art of Exploration” certainly advances the goal that exhibition curator Geoff Quilley aimed for: redeeming Hodges’ artistic reputation in the eyes of history.