Breaking the British Mold

FOR many of us, British art is typified by the portraits of Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds and by countless Victorian paintings of dogs, horses, and smiling children. Even the modern art of Britain can seem a little restrained. But the British have always had their wild side as well. One of their outstanding representatives was John Martin (1789-1854), whose paintings were so full of oddity and un-British emotion that he was called ``Mad'' Martin.

The painting reproduced on this page, ``The Assuaging of the Waters,'' is the last of a group of three that tell the story of Noah and the Flood.

In the foreground we see a raven, symbolizing death, and a serpent, symbolizing original sin. But most of the painting's surface brings us good news. The dove we know from the Bible story has found its bit of olive branch to carry back to Noah, indicating the presence of dry land. In the pools among the rocks in the foreground we see the beginnings of new life, in the form of sea creatures and the lotus flower.

Noahs's ark is hardly more than a speck in a vast expanse of water. It can be found in the right-hand side of the painting, but it plays only a minor part in conveying Martin's glowing view of nature.

This painting is atypical; many of Martin's paintings and prints were darker and wilder, in accordance with the narratives he chose to illustrate. But ``The Assuaging of the Waters'' is full of sunlight.

In using the light to give an impression of spiritual transcendence, the painting resembles the work of such artists as Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner, who were nearly Martin's contemporaries. The Romantic movement, which permeated European art, literature, and music during the first half of the 19th century, encouraged painters to depict nature showingGod as present everywhere.

European art went in other directions, and it is in America that Martin's true spiritual descendants are to be found. For all our emphasis on the practical, our country has always had a noticeable streak of religiosity in its art. If Martin had few outstanding followers in Britain, his romantic view of the divine in nature was strongly reflected in the work of such American painters as Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, and Fitz Hugh Lane.

Like Friedrich and Turner, Martin belongs to a tradition of Romantic painting that culminated in American Abstract Expressionism. The rocks in the foreground of this painting are executed with brushwork so free as to remind us of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. It is hard to believe that Martin's contemporaries saw the painting as we do, but for a modern viewer the analogies with abstract art are certainly there.

During the 19th century the use of a pervasive glowing light in American landscape painting came to be associated with the idea of America as a land so new as to be without sin. For early Americans this country could seem to be much like the cleansed land on which the ark came to rest.

Today it is difficult to think of America as an entirely innocent place. But ours is still a country that specializes in offering people a new start, and this painting is about hopeful new beginnings in life as well as Romanticism in art.

ORIGINALLY commissioned by the Duchess of Sutherland, ``The Assuaging of the Waters'' was bought last year by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It is the first major Romantic painting to enter the collection, and one of the most important paintings of its kind in the United States. It was put on display at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor earlier this year.

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