A visionary spark: contained exultation

The celebration of life through images of nature was very much a 19th-century phenomenon. From Turner and Constable, through Friedrich, the Barbizon School, the Hudson River School, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and finally to the late works of Monet, Cezanne, Redon, etc., we find nature serving as the means through which 19th-century painters could most fully realize their passion and love for color, light, and life.

Without doubt, the most passionate 19th-century celebrant of life through paint was Vincent Van Gogh. His ecstatic and occasionally hallucinatory depictions of nature stand very much alone, for only he seemed able to sink totally into the emotional sources of creation - and to then emerge with perfectly realized images of what he had seen and felt.

There was, however, another 19th-century painter who came close at times to the level of Van Gogh's passionate transmutations of nature into art. Not, certainly, to his most inspired moments, but most definitely to his more quietly exultant ones: and that was Samuel Palmer. But only the younger Samuel Palmer of the early visionary works - the paintings and drawings of landscapes and landscape fragments that stand out so clearly and lyrically among the best works of art produced during the first half of the 19th century.

Palmer was born in 1805 to a Baptist bookseller and his wife in the district of St. Mary in the parish of Newington, Southwark. After a period of tutoring at home by his father, and after discovering his artistic talent, young Samuel applied himself to the study of art. Although his first attempts were made without benefit of a teacher (and consisted mainly of copies of prints and drawings) he had progressed well enough by the time he was 13 to be sent to study on a more formal basis with William Wate, a minor painter of the time.

From that point on, he progressed rapidly, exhibiting at the Royal Academy when only 14, and selling his first picture shortly afterward. About this same time he saw and was deeply impressed by the work of J. M. W. Turner, and became his lifelong admirer.

Although he continued to exhibit at the Academy, his works at this time were more transcriptions of the paintings of Turner and David Cox than personal expressions of his own point of view. Not until John Linnell, older by 12 years than Palmer and himself an artist of some note, began to direct and advise the younger artist, did Palmer begin to find himself.

A meeting with William Blake shortly afterward focused his talents even more, and by the time he had reached his 20th birthday, Palmer was well on his way to creating the art for which he is now most famous.

The extraordinary thing about Palmer's early (1827-35) visionary works, executed at Shoreham in Kent, is their breathtaking immediacy and vibrancy. We don't so much see evidences and details of nature in his pictures as gasp at the sheer intensity of the life force that has been distilled, compacted, and projected toward us through them. Like Blake, whose work he studied and very much admired, Palmer knew the secret of containment, the knack of compressing the energy and vitality of the large into the very small. Just as Blake could give a one-inch-high engraved figure of a man all the power of an over-life-size Michelangelo figure, so could Palmer put all his youthful feelings about life, his exultations and passions before nature, his Romantic ideals and yearnings, into the depiction of moss on bark, a horse-chestnut tree, the thatched roof of a cottage, or a pear tree in a walled garden.

Again, like Blake's, Palmer's forms seem to vibrate with self-contained, even suppressed, energy - to be ready to burst forth and to explode. But they never quite do (unlike the forms of Van Gogh, which often seem to be in the actual process of ''exploding'').

This ability to contain passion and exultation within simple and humble forms , while not uncommon in poetry, is fairly rare in the visual arts, where energy is more apt to be spread out generously than to be compressed. In this, Palmer was quite exceptional, especially if we take into account the profound ''ordinariness'' of the things through which he managed to project this lyrical passion for life.

All the sadder, then, to have to report that this deeply felt inner vision deserted him during the late 1830s, and that for the remaining 40 or so years of his life he existed as a highly competent but uninspired painter - with one exception: from 1850 on, Palmer produced a small number of prints that did manage to capture some of the visionary passion of his early work. But there were only 13 of these - plus four more left unfinished at the time of his death in 1881.

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