February 7, 2014 6:37 pm

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany, Courtauld Gallery, London – review

Samuel Palmer’s ‘The Haunted Stream’ (c1826) featuring a man sitting by a stream

Samuel Palmer’s ‘The Haunted Stream’ (c1826)

In 1782, two artists met in Naples. One was the German Jakob Philipp Hackert, the other John Robert Cozens from Britain. Between them, they would radically influence the art of landscape in their respective countries.

A Dialogue with Nature, at London’s Courtauld Gallery, brings together works on paper by both artists alongside more than 20 others, including Gainsborough, Turner, Constable and Caspar David Friedrich. The show is a journey not only through landscape art at its most intimate and exploratory but also a chance to compare the approaches of the two nations, at times rich with cross-pollination, at others ignorant of each other’s voyage.

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Hackert and Cozens exemplify this complex pact. Both were committed to sketching from nature at a time when it was still far from the norm. Yet their finished works vary enormously. On show here, Hackert’s “View of the Villa of Maecenas and the Falls at Tivoli”, in pen and brown ink over graphite, is a vertiginous spectacle of steep, oak-cloaked cascades whose hectic, vaporous plunge is evoked with delicate shading.

For Cozens, on the other hand, it’s all about mood. Shunning the “tinted drawings” that were in vogue, he layered washes of colour to summon scenes through subtle tonal harmonies. The stony castle in “A Ruined Fort near Salerno” (c1782) vibrates through pewter, yellow, white and black as mountain peaks haze off into cloud through a spectrum of silvery blues. Cozens’s unflinching fidelity to his subject’s genius loci led Constable to declare him “the greatest genius that ever touched landscape”.

Until the late 18th century, landscape art, in particular the meticulous observation practised by the Dutch school, was still a subordinate genre. The alternatives to northern European realism were the idealised classical pastorals of Poussin, Claude Lorrain and their followers.

By the turn of the century, as the French Revolution shook up the old Enlightenment order, emotion was hailed as a saviour from the tyranny of science and reason. Nowhere was there a more fruitful source than the countryside, particularly as its mysterious power was heightened by the menace of creeping industrialisation.

Across Europe, the new Romantics took to the hills, their souls in sympathy with Wordsworth’s Herdsman who discovered that only “in the mountains did he feel his faith”. The credo of intensity was summed up by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich when he declared that “the artist shouldn’t only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him.”

Two watercolours paired here are enough to merit a visit to the exhibition: “Moonlit Landscape”, probably executed before 1808 by Friedrich, and Turner’s c1841 “On Lake Lucerne, looking towards Fluelen”.

Friedrich’s picture is a diminutive masterpiece. Like the Turner, it is a lakeside scene. Probably a “transparent” – a drawing designed to be illuminated by a candle placed behind it – the moon is a separate circle of white paper inserted into a hole cut into the sheet. When lit correctly, it would have cast an ethereal glow. Even without such tricks, this painting shines. Patches of land, sky and water dissolve into fathomless inky wells and details – gate, trees, and a halo-crowned figure gazing at the hills – whose graphic clarity is the gift of the moon: the landscape is poised between a Christian light and occult darkness.

Turner is a pagan through and through. His lake and sky merge across a veil of drizzle-grey mist; his mountain is as baleful as an iceberg; the pawprint of moon casts a lambent sheen expressed through the drag of the painter’s fingers. No figure preserves this territory from the amoral wastes of abstraction.

This exhibition also complicates the dichotomy between German linearity and British chromatism. A small room devoted to cloud studies permits comparison between Constable and the German artist Johann Georg Von Dillis, who was much influenced by Turner.

For both Constable and Dillis, empirical observation was a route into emotion. Turner, however, allowed feelings to dictate his world, as in his imaginary view of Cologne cathedral, made as a frontispiece for Byron’s Don Juan, with its palette of raspberry pinks, Mediterranean blue and rich ochre.

When Friedrich enjoined his fellows to paint their inner worlds, did he know they would travel so far?

To April 27, courtauld.ac.uk, then Morgan Library and Museum, New York, May 30-September 27

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