A Dialogue with Nature at the Courtauld Gallery

Landscape with Cemetery and Church, 1837, Karl Frederich Lessing
Landscape with Cemetery and Church, 1837, Karl Frederich Lessing

The cultural taste-setters and collectors who set sail from Britain in the C18 and C19 were travelling for the most part to France and Italy. Paris, Venice and most of all Rome were seen as the source of great art and architecture and it was pictures, sculptures and ideas based on classical ideals and fashioned in Italy and France that were brought back to the UK to fill the great country houses that were built by an increasingly confident and affluent British aristocracy. Germany did not feature on most people’s Grand Tour. It was not seen as a source of artistic inspiration and there was a prejudice against German art which has persisted down to modern times. The British were quite comfortable to import their monarchy from Germany, but not their art.

As a result, even today, German art is poorly represented in the great British public collections. But this year there seems a rush to correct this historic imbalance and German-themed exhibitions are appearing across London. I have not yet had the opportunity to see the National Gallery’s exhibition “Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance” but did this week see a small but very attractive exhibition of Romantic landscapes from Britain and Germany at the Courtauld Gallery.

The landscape drawings which make up this exhibition are the latter part of the C18 and the early part of the C19. This was a timeof revolution, politically and culturally. Politically, of course, the revolution took its sharpest form in France where the rational certainties of the enlightenment and the artistic froth of the Rococo were thrown over in favour of a more severe neo-classicism. But it was not just in France that there was change and across Europe there was a move to embrace a new Romantic art.

In his essay accompanying the catalogue of this exhibition, Matthew Hargreaves summarises how landscape art emerged in this period, challenging both the view that it was essentially inferior to ‘history painting’ and that the good landscape picture must represented an idealised version of nature. The traditional view might be summarised as Goethe praised Claude ” … his pictures are true, yet have no trace of actuality”. To represent a real landscape was mere illustration, not landscape painting.

But in this time of revolution, views changed. Painters started to work in the field, drawing and painting the landscape as they saw it. Tastes changed and the quest for an idealised landscape was replaced by the quest for the sublime, romantic landscape; a landscape which would move the heart, not the mind. Edmund Burke brought this into sharp focus in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful where he defined the sublime as “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger”. In landscape this meant the search for extreme, wild and untamed views.

Moonlit Landscape, 1837, Caspar David Friedrich
Moonlit Landscape, 1837, Caspar David Friedrich

The exhibition of drawings from both Germany and Britain is full of small-scale gems. Filling only two and a half rooms, and dedicated to drawings not paintings, it is a small exhibition. It traces how a common set of ideas and approaches to landscape emerged in the two countries, partly as a result of German and British artists meeting and sharing ideas, often in Rome. But though starting at a common part landscape drawing had developed in rather different directions by the middle of the C19. In Germany there remained through the period a focus on draughtsmanship and the mastery of detail. In Britain, Constable and Turner in particular took the medium in a rather different direction, focusing more on light and tone to create effects that can readily be seen as stepping stones to impressionism. There is no sense that one direction is ‘better’  than the other; both are interesting and capable of delivering moving drawings.

The Haunted Stream, 1826, Samuel Palmer
The Haunted Stream, 1826, Samuel Palmer

The exhibition is not a day out, it is an hour out. But if you are in London and you want to spend an hour with some beautiful and accessible drawings; the Courtauld Gallery is well worth a visit.

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