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THE DAWN OF THE ROMANTIC
by N.F. Karlins
 
The British landscape tradition is epitomized by two great 19th-century painters -- John Constable, with his country scenes under billowing whipped-cream clouds, and J.M.W. Turner with his chromatic ecstasies. Yet both men owe a great deal to a much less well-known British artist, Richard Wilson (ca. 1713-1782). In fact, Constable and Turner both owned works by him and hailed his art.

The work of Richard Wilson is really the hinge between continental landscapes in the Grand Manner and later British romantic nature scenes. You can see this for yourself in the pleasantly didactic loan show, "Richard Wilson and the British Arcadia," Apr. 29-June 25, 2010, at Richard L. Feigen & Co. on Manhattanís Upper East Side. Itís a great opportunity to see about a dozen of Wilsonís landscapes from throughout his career, plus four works by 17th-century artists that influenced him the most.

The exhibitionís centerpiece is Wilsonís large oil, The Destruction of Niobeís Children, a mythological scene embedded in a landscape as important as the figures. This ambitious canvas shows a turbulent sky, complete with lightning, above a forested mountain, where Apollo and Diana shoot arrows, killing the many children of Niobe, some of whom try to escape on horseback. It illustrates the climax of the story of Niobe, who boasted of her many offspring compared with Latonaís two. When the goddess complained to her kids, they took their revenge.

When the picture was shown at the Royal Academy in 1760, it caused a sensation. Here was an Arcadian scene, but instead of a popular vision of harmony and serenity it was a grand machine of thrills and spills, and one made by an Englishman to boot. This new vision offered British landscape a rhetoric of natural expressiveness and power. †

Richard Wilson had actually tried his hand at landscape as early as the 1740s, as is proved by his Caernarvon Castle (ca. 1744-45), set in his native Wales. He was willing to change the typography for effect, omitting the nearby port and recasting the castle as a ruin. But early in his artistic life, Wilson was working in London as a portraitist.

Wilson went to Italy, as did most 18th-century painters, in the fall of 1750, staying for seven years, spending time in several cities, but principally living in Rome. It was while in Italy that Wilson determined to become a landscapist.

The light of the campagna as captured by Claude Lorrain was one touchstone for Wilson, but he was also looking closely at the paintings of Gaspard Dughet and the Dutchman Aelbert Cuyp. Examples by these 17th-century painters are also in the exhibition.

Cuypís Landscape with the Flight into Egypt from around 1650 is an especially fine picture, well worth a long look itself. Everything is static except Joseph and his mule. They seem to be pulling the entire weight of the canvas with them as they hurry out of the scene at the lower left.

The golden glow that envelopes the scene, its receding space and gently shifting diagonals are all ideas that Wilson assimilated, if you compare his Caenarvon Castle to his post-Italian landscapes, like Tivoli: The Temple of the Sibyl and the Campagna (ca. 1765). In Tivoli, the landscape and the artist painting it in the foreground have replaced the mythic figures of The Destruction of Niobeís Children. It is still a very well-constructed picture, but it feels less self-consciously made.

Wilsonís painting The White Monk (ca. 1760-62) was popular enough to exist in several versions. Here a pair of lovers huddles under an umbrella in the foreground, while a lone rider makes his way down a pass in the center of the canvas. Upon a distant hilltop to the left, a figure or figures worship before a chapel or shrine. Perhaps one could read this painting as depicting three phases of human life. There are many possible interpretations, but the light breaking through the clouds and its diverse topography, probably a composite of many Italian places where Wilson went sketching, entranced the public.

Unfortunately, Wilsonís success didnít last. Despite being a founding member of the Royal Academy, by the mid-1770s commissions had dried up. He became an alcoholic and moved back to Wales shortly before 1782, the year that he died, in poverty.

Having been rediscovered by 19th-century British artists, itís time for the rest of us to properly appreciate him. Sales of the showís catalogue, with an excellent essay by Andrew Wilton, go to the Richard Wilson catalogue raisonnť project, which the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London, the sister institution of the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, is undertaking.

"Richard Wilson and the British Arcadia," Apr. 29-June 25, 2010, at Richard L. Feigen & Co., 34 East 69th Street, New York, N.Y. 100


N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.