- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

“The Artist’s Vision: Romantic Traditions in Britain,” containing prints and drawings selected from the collections of the National Gallery of Art and private lenders, features such sublime works as William Blake’s “The Great Red Dragon and the Beast From the Sea” and a few ridiculous ones as well, including George Cruikshank’s “Crinolina,” a parody on women wearing voluminous skirts that easily caught fire or got tangled in factory machinery.

The gallery attributes the variety and artistic changes of romanticism, a period lasting from the 1760s through the 1920s, to the upheavals caused by the French, American and Industrial revolutions.

The show, therefore, may prove confusing to visitors, as it is a collection of many styles rather than one.

Yet scholars have found that evoking the emotional through classical themes, landscape, medieval art and the supernatural is primary throughout the whole of romanticism. The curators took this view when putting together this exhibit.

Artists such as Samuel Palmer have been characterized as eccentric, though he also was a fine painter. The wall label tells visitors that Palmer founded an artistic group called the Ancients, settled them in the southern English village of Shoreham, and surprised them by requesting that they dress in archaic fashion during their nocturnal walks.

Another group was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of which Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the most famous. Rebelling against mid-19th-century academic art, they turned to the Middle Ages and Shakespeare for inspiration.

Because of romantic art’s fragmentation, the gallery divided the show into two main sections devoted to emotionalism: One the painters found in nature, the other via their identification with the mystical.

The Pastoral Vision and the Ancients section begins the show with works by artists who emphasized the godly in nature, among them Palmer, J.M.W. Turner and Alexander Cozens and his son John Robert Cozens. Rebelling against the artists of the academy before them, Alexander Cozens depicted nature through inkblots, while his son John, in his lyrical watercolor “Monte Circeo at Sunset,” shows the new interest in using almost abstract washes of color to portray atmosphere and weather.

There’s a wonderful, deeply etched set of Palmer prints with “The Sleeping Shepherd: Early Morning,” “The Weary Ploughman” and “The Bellman” at the show’s entrance.

His earlier “Harvesters by Firelight” (1830), a visionary pen-and-ink with watercolor and gouache drawing, is most impressive. The dramatic, diagonal swath of yellow in the foreground can be seen as a forerunner of modernist techniques.

Visitors next come to the section Visions of Light and Color: The Rise of the British Watercolor. Before the work of Turner, John Martin and the critic-painter John Ruskin, British watercolor landscapes had been stilted and topographic. With Martin, watercolors become complex and evocative. His “View on the River Wye, Looking Towards Chepstow” expressively combines watercolor, gouache and touches of oil paint over graphite heightened with varnish and/or gum arabic for a magnificent sweep of rocks, hill and water.

Stacey Sell, the exhibition’s curator and the gallery’s assistant curator of old master drawings, points out that Martin used the back of his brush for the white cliff lines, gum resin to make the blacks of the lower cliff deep and shiny, and a thinnish watercolor to render mist rising from the river.

Turner also worked with these kinds of watercolors in his poetic “Yorkshire River,” dabbled with color so briefly it could almost be considered a sketch. American modernist painter Milton Avery’s landscapes surely must have been influenced by them, especially his beachscapes.

The exhibit’s Visions of Darkness section expresses romanticism’s weirder, blacker concerns. When Miss Sells writes that the romantics were fascinated with extremes of human behavior, she points to Henry Fuseli and his followers John Hamilton Mortimer and Cruikshank.

Surprisingly, she includes the prolific and famous William Blake in this section with such apocalyptic visions as his “The Great Red Dragon and the Beast From the Sea” — the exhibit’s high point and that of the artist’s career, as well.

Here, in a scene in the book of Revelation, the dragon, representing Satan, gives a sword and staff to the monster rising from the sea, equipping him for their war against the saints.

The exhibit ends with the Pre-Raphaelites’ works — not everyone’s cup of tea. Out of fashion for many years, they’re now sought after by curators for their depictions of medieval tales and Shakespearean classics.

The museum features Rossetti’s delicate drawing of “Desdemona’s Death-Song,” a recent acquisition. The artist shows a pathetic Desdemona singing her “willow song” just before she is murdered by Othello.

Though visitors may find such big doses of emotionalism confusing, they surely will find them challenging as well.

WHAT: “The Artist’s Vision: Romantic Traditions in Britain”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through March 18

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4214

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