Artists embrace nature during Britian’s industrial revolution

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Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.
William Blake, “The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea,” c. 1805.

National Gallery of Art displays a variety of works from the Romantic period


The American and French Revolutions left a wide and rocky wake in the British Isles. Their empire was collapsing, Napoleon was on the march through Europe, factories lured country-dwellers to the new cities where poverty and disease often awaited, and scientific discovery was poking holes in long-held beliefs about the natural world.

“There was a lot of insecurity about the industrial revolution,” said Stacey Sell, the National Gallery of Art’s assistant curator of old master drawings. “It was a time of high emotion.”

Sell is the curator of “The Artist’s Vision: Romantic Traditions in Britain,” a collection of approximately 70 works exploring this age of anxiety on display at the National Gallery through March 18. The exhibition showcases works on paper by William Blake, Samuel Palmer, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and many others. From watercolor, to pen and ink, to etchings and chalk sketches, most of the pieces are culled from the museum’s permanent collection, though many are being displayed for the first time since their acquisition.

“The Artist’s Vision: Romantic Traditions in Britain” is on display at the National Gallery of Art until March 18.

Spanning nearly two centuries (the earliest work on display is from the 1760s, the most recent, the 1920s), the exhibition takes as its theme the influence and scope of an amorphous group of artists whose sensibilities led them to become known as the Romantics. The Romantics, many of whom were devout Christians, championed a return to the “inspiration qualities” of nature, and many Romantic works depict pastoral life. The exhibition opens with George Fennel Robson’s “A Loch in Scotland,” a tranquil landscape, awash with blue and orange tones; a dream, it seems, of the past. Just behind it is John Constable’s “The Great Oak Tree,” another watercolor, this one celebrating not the serenity of nature, but its power. The oak dominates the frame, holding forth as if a king, challenging science, standing for the solid simplicity and grandeur of nature.

Another notable watercolor is a small still life by William Henry Hunt called “Apples and Plums.” The vibrant color and surprisingly realistic texture of this tiny painting set it apart from the others, but Sell says, that’s the point.

“They were using such a wide range of techniques,” Sell explained. “If you stop and look closely, you can see how different artists approached the medium completely differently.”

Indeed, those used to the dramatic abandon of Jackson Polluck’s frenzied drip paintings, or Willem de Kooning’s messy brushstroke, might miss the emotion bubbling beneath the surface of the Romantic works. But lean in–as many viewers did on a recent afternoon, lifting eyeglasses and peering with their noses nearly touching the glass–and the painstaking, almost obsessive detail betrays a churning, disturbed mind.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of William Blake. Blake–a prolific artist and poet whose subjects were frequently monsters, devils, and myriad other nightmarish creatures–who is represented heavily in the show, with half-a-dozen works on display. “The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea” and “Caliban” are notable for their depiction of scenes and characters from what many Romantics considered the great tomes of history: the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.
Samuel Palmer, “The Sleeping Shepard,” c. 1857.

Blake’s influence is seen throughout the show, especially in the etchings of disciple Samuel Palmer, who employed Blake’s innovation of etching white lines into a black surface for his melancholy portraits of rural life. In “The Bellman,” a lone man walks a country road at dusk, and nary a soul greets him–they’ve all moved to the city, perhaps, to find work in the factories. But he hangs on to that life, even as the bulls in their pen retreat with the sun. In “The Sleeping Shepard,” a small, vibrant etching with watercolor, Palmer paints a shepherd left behind, sheltered, momentarily, from the coming modernity.

For Sell, these tiny pieces are where a viewer can become most intimately involved with the artist.

“If you allow yourself to get lost in the work, you start recreating the artist’s process,” she said. Your eyes trace the lines of an etching, or the shading of a watercolor, and you begin to make guesses: how did he get this mist? Was the line drawn in first, or did he add it after the wash?

“These pieces are intended to be looked at closely,” Sell said. “The more you look, the more you see.”

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