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  • Nobleness and Grandeur: Forging Historical Landscape
    January 31, 2005 NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT.

    Richard Wilson, The Destruction of Niobe's Children (detail), 1760, oil on canvas, Yale Center of British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

    This winter, the Yale Center for British Art presents a groundbreaking exhibition charting the development of the historical landscape genre in Britain from its creation in the mid-eighteenth century to its culmination in the Romantic period. Nobleness and Grandeur: Forging Historical Landscape in Britain, 1760–1850 (through April 24, 2005) features 52 works drawn from the Center’s rich collection of paintings, prints, drawings, and rare books.

    In 1760, Richard Wilson, one of the foremost artists of his day, inaugurated a revolutionary category of painting with the exhibition of The Destruction of Niobe’s Children, in which he melded two established genres: landscape (considered one of the lowliest forms of painting) and history painting (considered the highest). Wilson’s work prompted a radical critical and artistic enquiry into the established orthodoxies of art by suggesting that landscape painting could be combined with history painting. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the great arbiter of aesthetic issues, criticized elements of Niobe as “ridiculous,” but acknowledged that historical landscape, if executed appropriately, could achieve “nobleness, grandeur, and the poetick [sic] character.” Praised by one critic for its “Greatness of Idea,” Niobe established Wilson’s reputation as an artist capable of rivaling the French and Italian masters of the previous century. This extraordinary achievement, at a time when British connoisseurs denigrated native artists’ accomplishments, helped earn him the title Father of British Landscape.

    Nobleness and Grandeur examines the central role played by historical landscape painting in the evolution of British political and artistic identity at a time of turbulent change. During the Seven Years War (1756-63) and the wars with Napoleon (1793-1817), interest in Britain’s heritage and history developed as an expression of national identity, and British artists were moved to depict specific indigenous sites rather than imaginary and classical landscapes. In particular, the surge of interest in the ancient Celtic past of Britain led to a focus on Wales, prompting Wilson to create some of his most ambitious landscapes, such as the monumental pair of canvasses Dinas Bran from Llangollen, and View near Wynnstay, Seat of Watkin Williams-Wynn (1770-71).

    The legacy of Richard Wilson’s historical landscape painting was carried on by his pupil, William Hodges, who extended the boundaries of the genre by chronicling the topography of the British Empire. In the subsequent generation of Romantic artists, Wilson’s most significant heirs were J. M. W. Turner, whose ambitious exploration of the possibilities of historical landscape ranged from mythological subjects to contemporary events, and John Constable. Turner and Constable transformed the genre by depicting sites that had deep personal significance. The conscious cultivation of these associations played a central role in the self-fashioning of the image of the Romantic artist, and has had an enduring currency. Constable’s native Suffolk is known today as “Constable country,” an epithet it acquired during the artist’s lifetime. The exhibition culminates with Constable’s monumental painting Hadleigh Castle, which is arguably one of the last great historical landscape paintings of the Romantic period.

    Organized to complement the exhibition William Hodges, 1744–1797: The Art of Exploration at the Center, Nobleness and Grandeur features Wilson’s celebrated historical landscapes, including the landmark painting The Destruction of Niobe’s Children, as well as works by Hodges, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hamilton Mortimer, John Martin, Turner, and Constable. Richard Wilson has not been the focus of an exhibition in more than twenty years. The exhibition offers a unique opportunity to reevaluate his extraordinary achievement. Nobleness and Grandeur has been organized by Olivia Horsfall Turner, formerly a graduate student in the History of Art, Yale University, and now a graduate student in the History of Art at University College, London.