The National Gallery of Art in Washington presented a feast for the eyes this week. Three feasts, in fact. To celebrate Rembrandt year, the NGA organised the largest exhibition of his drawings, etchings and prints ever assembled in the United States. In an adjoining gallery, the NGA has rehung its celebrated Woodner collection of hundreds of master drawings, including three stunning Ingres.
And if that is not enough to tempt you to take your next break in Washington, consider the somewhat more surprising exhibition that has just opened: The Artist’s Vision: Romantic Traditions in Britain. In order to compare differing Romantic ideals and visions, the curator, Stacey Sell, has brought together almost 100 drawings that show the diversity of interests and talents of British artists from the late 18th century to the early 20th century. The majority are from the NGA’s own collection, a few from private sources.
The exhibition’s first section, which the curator has captioned Man and Nature, is drawn from the NGA’s rich collection of British watercolours and drawings, and reflects the love of nature, and especially the countryside, that is, or until recently has been, a major part of the nation’s psyche. Here, we can trace the evolution of the Romantic landscape from 18th-century ideas of the sublime and picturesque through to the later trends of naturalism and a poetic identification with the landscape.
One of the best representatives of this aspect of the British soul is Samuel Palmer’s depiction of ‘A Cascade in Shadow’ (1836). This masterful watercolour, with pen and ink, of a waterfall on the Conwy River near Betws-y-Coed in north Wales uses light and dark, sun and shade to capture the love Palmer felt for nature. So beautiful is this drawing that Palmer kept it in his own collection for nearly 40 years.
‘The Sleeping Shepherd; Early Morning’ (1857), also by Samuel Palmer, is the size of a manuscript page, a hand-coloured etching with watercolour, gold and gouache, and presents a ravishing view of dawn with a farmer already at his plough while the boy still sleeps among his flock.
Graham Sutherland was influenced by Palmer, and his tiny etching of ‘The Village’, with its ordered rows of planted fields, gives us his (1925) vision of a land at peace.
Another gem is J.M.W. Turner’s 1825 ‘A Yorkshire River’. Deceptively simple, almost abstract, this watercolour is three bands of colour, sky, river and land, with an impression of a man at the lower left.
The Romantic painters (and writers) were fascinated by the Gothic, the exotic and the downright ugly. I have always questioned why this should be so; this show doesn’t answer that question. The next section, titled Darkness, includes several stunning works by William Blake. One is the seldom seen ‘The Accusers of Theft, Adultery and Murder (War)’, an etching printed in colour. Another Blake treasure in the exhibition is the more widely known and appreciated ‘The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea’ (c.1805). This apocalyptic watercolour, a scene from the Book of Revelation, shows the dragon (aka Satan) handing his sword to the beast who rises from the sea, to arm him in his battle against the saints.
Truth and Beauty, the next section, is a relief from the horrors depicted in the section on Darkness.
The National Gallery recently acquired ‘Desdemona’s Death-Song’, a major Rossetti drawing on two large blue joined sheets, from the collection of John Paul Getty in London. Desdemona ‘hang[s] my head all at one side’, a mirror dangling idly from her hand. There are several narrative elements: Emilia brushing Desdemona’s typically lush Pre-Raphaelite hair, Othello’s warrior shield on the wall, and a large crucifix in the background. Willow fronds — a reference to the Willow Song — blow in through an open window giving an impression of agitation and tension. Desdemona looks frightened, as well she should be.
Next to this drawing the curator has cleverly placed an earlier version, also on two large cream-coloured sheets. In this version Desdemona sits alone, her head also bent to one side. Here she looks wistful, pensive, mystified but unafraid. There is no movement here, no swirling curtains or cascading hair — only sadness and regret.
Shown together for the first time since they were in Rossetti’s studio, these drawings give the viewer a rare opportunity to compare the two and to trace the evolution of Rossetti’s idea of Desdemona, a character with whom he was obsessed. The juxtaposition of the two adds depth and poignancy to each. Not unexpectedly, Mrs William Morris is the model in both drawings. Was Dante Gabriel Rossetti thinking of Othello?
Rossetti was haunted by Desdemona as a subject, returning to it many times in his life although he may never have painted a full-scale oil on canvas. The earlier version, in which the graceful Desdemona fills the entire composition, may represent an early idea for a painting Rossetti planned to sell to his long-time patron, Frederick Leyland.
It is worth visiting Washington’s National Gallery for this exhibition alone. Add the Rembrandt show, the Woodner collection, the Gallery’s extraordinary permanent collection, and a lunch in its attractive café, and you will have reason to feel the time well spent.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 2, 2006