Romance ain't what it used to be. These days it’s all swanky dinners, boxes of chocolate and rampant sexting. But back in the early nineteenth century, according to the Courtauld’s concise show of English and German Romantic painting, it was all about really big mountains.
The drawings, watercolours and oil sketches gathered together here try to convey nature as an overwhelming presence. In works by John Constable, JR Cozens and JK Hackert, mountains dwarf buildings, clouds swallow boats, waterfalls drench castles. Nature is vast, powerful and permanent, while humans are small and weak.
The thing is, you have to create a painting of some serious quality if you’re going to depict nature as sublime. And most of the works here don’t measure up. Maybe it comes down to looking through ADD-addled modern eyes, but paintings of moonlit castles on quaint streams (we're looking at you, Samuel Palmer) don’t really inspire wonderment.
It will be no surprise to learn that works by the two biggest names here are the most successful. Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Moonlit Landscape’ is brilliantly dark and moody, while two landscapes by JMW Turner, including ‘On Lake Lucerne, Looking Towards Fluelen’ (1841), with washed out, hazy light obscuring a near-featureless landscape, are breathtaking.
The show is small and maybe lacks a knockout centrepiece, but you leave with a sense that these Romantic artists weren’t just illustrating some heavy-handed concept. They wanted one thing – to paint beauty itself. When they get close, it’s stunning. Romanticism: it’s loads better than dinner and a movie.
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While it’s good that these rarely-seen works get an airing, they would sit better as part of the gallery’s regular display, rather than as a stand-alone exhibition. On show are some of the Courtauld’s collection of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century drawings, watercolours and oil sketches. This period represents a crucial point in the development of landscape art, where the prevalence of artists working from their imagination in studios was being challenged by artists working directly from nature in the field.
The standout works are by Turner, while the German end is held up by a couple of pieces by Caspar David Friedrich. There are also some lovely cloud studies by Constable and the German artist Johann Georg von Dillis. They were among the first artists to study nature so closely outside. This new approach was part of the Romantic conception of nature as ‘sublime’, meaning awe-inspiring or terrifying. This attitude toward the natural world feels just as relevant relevant today with our increasingly extreme weather.
For more art in plain English, check out http://www.curatedlondon.co.uk
Friedrich's stylized picture evokes a wonderful calm and ethereal atmosphere making you feel that you are really there observing the scene as if you were the figure in the picture, your eyes drawn ineluctably to the landscape scene so beautifully featured in the moonlight. A magnificent example of his painting.