British artists began to travel to Italy around 1750 to sketch its ancient sites and idyllic countryside. Inspired by the idealized classical landscapes of the most famous landscape painters of the previous century, namely Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, the Britons carried with them a preconceived idea of what nature looked like—a perfect harmony of form, composition, and space. At the same time, Edmund Burke’s philosophy of the sublime, proposed in his A Philosophical Inquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), challenged perfectly proportioned beauty, emphasizing instead a vast and sometimes terrifying nature. Accompanying the idealized and the sublime concepts of nature was the British tradition of topographical drawing, which accentuated the accurate description of a particular place through careful pen work and minimal color. The early landscapes of Italy by British artists in this gallery embody this convergence.
Among the drawings presented here, some were executed on site while others were exhibition pieces based on sketches, made after returning from Italy. Indeed, most of these artists used subjects and motifs from their Italian journeys for many years, capitalizing on public interest as well as on the professional authority the Grand Tour—the tradition of visiting Europe’s most eminent cultural sites—lent to their practice. When political turmoil severely restricted British travel abroad, beginning with the French Revolution in 1789 and ending with the close of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, these works filled the void of foreign travel and offered British viewers memories of distant lands.
This exhibition is organized in conjunction with Pilgrims of Beauty: Art and Inspiration in 19th-Century Italy, on view beginning February 3, 2012.