The Glorious Nature of Landscape

THE cathedral's spire rises into the cloudy sky. Light pours down like a blessing from its invisible source. The trees arch up, framing the spire. The cathedral is brilliantly precise in detail, but the vegetation surrounding it is softer, luxuriant, a little more vague in its definitions.

A strolling couple admire the cathedral's finer points, and cows graze and drink from the pond in the foreground. There is peace and activity and room for contemplation.

``Salisbury Cathedral From the Bishop's Grounds'' by John Constable is easy to read and immediately accessible, speaking to us of its own time and culture. England in the early 19th century was a different world than the United States in the late 20th century, yet we instantly recognize that culture's ideals in Constable's painting.

The work was commissioned by the bishop of Salisbury, John Fisher, and Constable had his assistant do the initial drawing. Constable wasn't free to follow his muse and do exactly what he wanted because he was painting a portrait of a particular property. And yet, what a world is here. Constable's own vision, his presence, intelligence, and creative spirit stamp this art-work-to-order.

The artist found his freedom of expression within the dictates of that commission. He wrote, ``I have not flinched at the work of the windows, buttresses, &c, &c, but I have as usual made my escape in the evanescence of the chiaroscuro.''

``Salisbury Cathedral From the Bishop's Ground'' is part of an exhibition, ``Glorious Nature: British Landscape Painting 1750-1850,'' at the Denver Art Museum through Feb. 6, 1994. This show helps the viewer understand not only the historical development of a painting style, but also the individual artists at work in that genre.

The 20th century has brought with it the ideal of the artist as free agent, uninhibited by the marketplace, free to follow the whims of desire and the dictates of self-expression. Professional criticism has tended to support this idealism since the 1950s especially.

But this was not always the case. Though it may be difficult to understand, the great art of the past most often came despite or because of the dictates of public taste.

English landscape painting developed in symbiotic relationship to its audience's taste. That taste was formed by the artists themselves, as the wall plaques explain in the ``Glorious Nature'' exhibition. As a growing leisure class evolved, art instruction became an important part of the educated classes' refinements. Artists were engaged to teach art in the home, and artists wrote books of instructions on how to draw, paint, and look at nature and other subjects.

Of course, patrons like the bishop of Salisbury often commissioned portraits of their properties, and as English society began to enclose property, landed folk liked having pictures of their holdings. As society changed, so did the requirements of art.

One of the most interesting historical points the exhibition brings out is that as the Napoleonic wars made travel on the continent impossible, English tourists had to turn more toward their own country for rest and recreation. The Rev. William Gilpin wrote guidebooks to England, telling readers what to look for in the countryside and how to respond to nature's beauty. As ``Glorious Nature'' curator Timothy Standring points out, where once the landscape was thought of as merely something inhibiting daily activities, it began to become an end in itself - nature as points of interest.

``By the mid-19th century, nature was commonly appreciated as something worthy of admiration,'' Mr. Standring says. ``Many artists and their public began to recognize that nature had the potential to evoke emotional responses, that it could be gazed at, or enjoyed, as if it were a vehicle of ideal beauty.''

The parson taught his readers how to appreciate the beauties of nature. Watercolor manuals taught Sunday artists to appreciate formal elements of good landscape sketching and painting. Education in how to see was as important as art education in learning to appreciate landscape painting.

Standring points out that the public needed to be educated in order to appreciate what the artists were doing. The education of audiences fueled an explosive production of watercolor landscape.

Then, too, as the influence of academic idealization began to wane, artists like Constable became more and more attracted to nature ``on its own terms,'' Standring says. Landscape no longer languished at the bottom of the painting hierarchy. Watercolor began to come into its own as a medium.

As the viewer walks through the exhibition, some of the conventions emerge at once, as painting after painting places human beings in the foreground, architecture in the middle ground, and vistas of nature in the background.

The pictures are often framed by trees; the rough texture of trees and rutted roads reinforce the illusion that most of these paintings were done on site. But in fact, most were painted in the artists' studios. And most of the early work, like Gainsborough's ``Wooded Landscape With a Cottage, Sheep, and a Reclining Shepherd'' sprang from the artist's imagination rather than any real landscape.

There were many reasons for the development of landscape painting in Britain. But however much sociological and economic factors may have contributed to this work, the closer landscape painting comes to nature, the more moving and engaging it seems. Constable's exquisite cloud studies may have been finished in the studio, but they are themselves the products of reality, the reflection of the real beauties of nature.

It's really not so surprising, then, that people had to learn how to see their surroundings, how to reassess the wild and the rural after ages of rigorous battle with nature just to wrest food from it. After all, for hundreds of years art was about human experience, not the natural world. Learning to appreciate it for its own sake took a leap of the imagination. It also required a lot of looking and some traveling.

``That was the basis for the picturesque - that you would take elements from hither and yon [what you had seen in various places] and combine them for your own ideal landscape,'' Standring says. ``The artist as journalist capturing unadorned nature as much as possible has some beginning with Constable but comes full force with the writing of Ruskin and with his little sketches.''

Standring and others point out how appropriate it is that a British landscape exhibition closes the Denver Art Museum's centennial celebration. The Rocky Mountains provide some of the most exquisite natural vistas in the world. Most of us in Colorado are well accustomed to active appreciation of these marvelous mountain views. We appreciate our mountains, but few of us are now educated to appreciate our arts.

Walking through room after room full of British landscape painting, the viewer claims the dazzling riches of paint and canvas inherited from another time. These paintings seem accessible and immediate to us because the language of aesthetics is familiar.

The exhibition shows viewers that it took arts education for people to learn to appreciate the skill and spirit of fine landscape painting, just as it took Rev. Gilpin's guidebooks to help the public understand and appreciate the beauties of nature. The message inadvertently underlying this wonderful large show points to the relationship between cultivated public appreciation of art and the development of great works of art.

* `Glorious Nature: British Landscape Painting 1750-1850' will be on display at the Denver Art Museum through Feb. 6, 1994.

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