Arts & Culture

Constable, Gainsborough, Turner: The Making of British Landscape

At the Royal Academy

8 December 2012  – 17 February 2013

Aside from its blockbuster, coffer-filling exhibitions, the RA often offers little stocking-filler exhibitions – usually small, low-budget, bijou shows, drawn from their own collection.

Now that the surprisingly successful Bronzes exhibition has finished and before they open their next big blockbuster, Manet’s Portraits (26 January – 14 April), they have a charming, if slightly academic, exhibition in the opulently gilded John Madekski Rooms and two adjacent rooms. All the works come from the RA’s own collection, though they have never been shown together and many are little known.

The exhibition explores the rise of a distinctive British school of landscape painting in the second half of the 18th century, modelled on 17th century French, Italian and Dutch masters, and the emergence of the aesthetic categories of the Beautiful, the Sublime and the Picturesque. The 18th century philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant sought to differentiate the concept of the Beautiful from that of the Sublime, the Beautiful evoking familiar experiences and thus promoting pleasurable feelings, whereas the Sublime stemming from the unfamiliar (towering mountains, jagged gorges and rushing torrents) and thus prompting feelings of awe, terror or mystical reverence. The Picturesque is situated ambiguously between the Beautiful and the Sublime.

The exhibition includes a large number of prints, but also some very fine watercolours, drawings and paintings.

From its inception in the 1760s, the RA chiefly promoted ‘history’ paintings (i.e. paintings based on biblical or mythological subjects) as the quintessence of artistic achievement.  Landscape, like portraiture, was considered in Britain as elsewhere in Europe, a lesser genre, but it nonetheless flourished at the RA, nurtured by such Founder Members as Richard Wilson, Paul Sandby and of course Gainsborough.

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Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013