Palmer's ebullient, early vision flouted restraint

Some artists become inextricably linked with a particular place. The 19th-century English artist Samuel Palmer is one. The picturesque village of Shoreham in Kent, in southeastern England, is his place. Born a Londoner, son of a bookseller, he spent somewhat less than a decade, beginning in 1825, living and painting here. When he left, the extraordinary, visionary conviction that had instilled his intense Shoreham pictures gradually faded. His later work, though still in the pastoral tradition, is unremarkable.

As "In a Shoreham Garden" shows, Palmer's Shoreham work was often ebulliently at odds with conventional restraint. It was expressed in a variety of styles and techniques charged with experimental energy. The clouds of apple blossoms in this small picture, and the beaded and speckled garden foliage enclosing the wondrous – almost explosive – tree are painted with an expressive immediacy not to be seen again until Vincent van Gogh, more than half a century later.

The painting conveys one of spring's overwhelming phenomena. But to capture it, Palmer leaped over the need to simply imitate the phenomenon. It seems painted as if it were a succession of discoveries. You might almost be watching the exuberant application and buildup of paint (he used a thick gouache). Palmer's swift and varied array of marks have a life of their own, independent of the subject. The picture is an equivalent, not a copy. It is observed from nature, but it is formed with what Palmer called "the ponderous globosity" of art. To him, the study of nature was necessary to his art. But art itself, particularly the art of old-master prints like Dürer's, was another world.

It was a world of imagination, poetry, and (as he was fervently religious) a sense of a paradise only hinted at by things seen. In a letter dated May 17, 1829, Palmer writes of his "delight in the glory of the season" and adds: "Tho' living in the country I really did not think there were those splendours in visible creation which I have lately seen." This painting describes those splendors better than his words.

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