The British painter Richard Wilson (around 1713-82) is considered the father of British landscape painting in his homeland, but he is little known in the United States. The 11 paintings (some from museums) in this exhibition may change that. The best of them are put together with a striking awareness of paint and its ability to create space, light and matter without denying its own plasticity. It is a quality that always makes a painting feel new and alive, whatever its age.
In his excellent essay in the exhibition’s catalog, the British art historian Andrew Wilton quotes John Ruskin’s conviction that with Wilson “sincere landscape art, founded on a meditative love of Nature, begins for England: and, I may add, for Europe.” Ruskin’s “sincere landscape art” eventually led British artists like Turner, Constable and Richard Parkes Bonington — all influenced by Wilson — to the Barbizon School and Impressionism.
Wilson painted in Italy in the early 1750s; he was one of the first British artists to do so. Mr. Wilton diagrams the care with which he chose his influences. Claude Lorrain was his hero, but Wilson’s quiet surface energy and unfussy forms were his own. In “A Wooded Landscape With Cicero Near His Villa in Rome,” that orator, deep in talk with a companion, gestures toward his domicile. Reminiscent of one of Philip Guston’s skyscrapers, it is a mound of lush, gray paint with setbacks.
In “Caernarvon Castle,” from 1744-45, an artist sketches a stone edifice facing a lake as blue as the sky above. The castle’s reflection reaches across the lake almost to the man standing behind the artist, watching him work. The ochre shore, blue lake and pink-gray castle softly balance the primary colors.
“The Destruction of the Children of Niobe” treats a theme worthy of Poussin, but without the stagy stiffness. Presented at the Royal Academy in 1760, the painting was such a hit that Wilson made several versions, including one shown here that depicts the slaughter unfolding on a starkly diagonal slope beside a waterfall. In his essay Mr. Wilton describes how Wilson’s interest in the sublime prompted him to make paintings of Niagara Falls based on an engraving of a painting by an amateur. He notes that Wilson’s influence would eventually reach the Hudson River School painters through Turner. It’s all connected.
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