Pastures Green and Dark Satanic Mills
In his preface to Milton (ca. 1804–10), the poet William Blake praises England’s “mountains green” and “pleasant pastures” and alludes to the legendary sanctification of British soil through a visit by the child Jesus with Joseph of Arimathea, said to have been a tin merchant by trade, to Glastonbury. This poem ends with a challenge to create a New Jerusalem, or ideal paradise, among the “dark Satanic mills” that already loomed in Blake’s day.
Taking inspiration from Blake’s poem for its title, the exhibition Pastures Green and Dark Satanic Mills: The British Passion for Landscape examines the tensions between nature and culture, country and city, that would play a decisive role in British art and literature in the following two centuries. The exhibition demonstrates the emergence of a modern, industrial environment in Britain, which generated a heightened awareness of and passion for the natural world, leading British artists to new levels of achievement in landscape painting, drawing, and photography. The works on view, drawn from Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales in Cardiff, also suggest that Wales—an area of outstanding natural beauty that was deeply affected by mining, smelting, and industry—has played a key role in this story.
The earliest material in the exhibition includes a painting by the French seventeenth-century master Claude Lorrain, a resident of Rome, whose idyllic reconstructions of the worlds of classical and Biblical antiquity were avidly collected by Britons on the Grand Tour to Italy that capped an elite classical education. Claude’s contemporary, the Neapolitan Salvator Rosa, who was also much appreciated and patronized by Northern tourists, is represented by a dramatic, brooding scene of a countervailing type that would influence later British Romantic artists. Eighteenth-century artists like Joseph Wright of Derby, Thomas Gainsborough, and the Welsh Thomas Jones built upon these foreign models to found a distinctively British tradition. The discovery of “the picturesque,” manifested in ruins and the mountainous regions of Britain—a development in which the rugged terrain of Wales played a decisive role—is illustrated by the work of Thomas Barker of Bath, Thomas Girtin, and David Cox.
In the second section, the towering figure of J. M. W. Turner is presented through his contributions to the depiction of “the sublime”—a type of beauty discussed in Edmund Burke’s essay “Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful” (1757), according to which aesthetic pleasure can be derived from spectacles that inspire fear. Here paintings and watercolors document Turner’s growing freedom in the use of his mediums, starting in the 1790s and extending through the 1840s, and his bold explorations of color that would change the course of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art. The watercolor Flint Castle (1835), once owned by Turner’s champion, the critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), exemplifies the light effects to which European artists from Eugène Delacroix to the Impressionists responded in their own works. The oil painting The Storm (1840–45) is a vast painted panorama that looks ahead to Abstract Expressionism in its gestural painting process, even as it recreates the meteoric conditions of a terrifying disaster for the tiny figures seen tossed about among the waves and doomed by the raging elements.
The British penchant for specificity in depicting topography and flora and fauna, which peaked in the mid-nineteenth-century Pre-Raphaelite movement, is traced from the seventeenth through twentieth centuries in the works of masters who laid the groundwork, who were sympathetic fellow travelers with those nineteenth-century artists, or who carried on the ethos of “truth to nature” in modern times. This love of precision in reproducing the surrounding world led to the adoption of the new invention of photography in the nineteenth century. John Constable, the great contemporary and rival of Turner, is a fine exemplar of this impulse to record one’s environs, for he left behind unforgettable records of the agrarian eastern region of England from whence he hailed. While Constable has always been considered one of the glories of British art, the Welsh artist Thomas Jones, who is represented in the exhibition by two rare studies, had more unusual critical fortunes: if his outdoor oil sketch, made in Wales before his trip to Italy in 1776, is what might be expected of an artist of his era, his startlingly precocious Neapolitan view, taken from the roof of his lodgings, represents a body of work only rediscovered in the twentieth century. As a result of these few informal Italian studies, Jones is now considered a key figure in British art and a precursor of twentieth-century modernism.
From the earliest days of industrialization, artists were captivated by the novel, unfamiliar worlds of machinery and mining, iron forging and textile manufacturing—the basis of Britain’s prosperity. Around 1900, many artists found gritty beauty in London and other cities, including Cardiff, which was notable for steel production and the shipping of coal. Centered upon a monumental, visionary canvas—Steelworks, Cardiff, at Night, painted by the American artist Lionel Walden in 1895–97—the fourth section contains works that examine the impact of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of modern life in Britain. Walden translated the sheer mechanical power of a steel mill into a fearsome nocturnal inferno.
Foreign artists like Claude Monet and Leon de Smet came to Britain to paint, attracted by the unprecedented foggy effects produced by the air pollution from burning coal. Their Impressionist views of London bridges are compared in the fifth section of the exhibition to works by British artists who were inspired not only by these artists’ renderings of the atmospheric local fogs but also by the brighter, more buoyant Impressionist views of the French coast. Here are found works by modernist painters such as Frank Brangwyn, Laura Knight, and Augustus John.
The closing section examines the Neo-Romantic movement, which drew inspiration from the artistic project of the innovative nineteenth-century artist Samuel Palmer (1805–1881) and emphasized the distinctiveness of the English countryside and its monuments. The movement celebrated the land and its inhabitants, as seen in Cedric Morris’s Stoke by Nayland Church (1940) or Graham Sutherland’s Road at Porthclais with Setting Sun (1975), which combines the English pastoral tradition with a keen understanding of developments in European modernism. It also anticipated the “green” movement of the late twentieth century. David Nash’s Ash Dome (2000) concludes the exhibition with photographs of an architectural creation and monument of land art, composed of living ash trees. Developed over decades, from 1977 until the present, it celebrates the power of living nature to endure.
The exhibition thus serves as a valuable contextualization of the giants of British landscape painting, represented by some of their major achievements, while affording an opportunity to discover some of the lesser-known but still beguiling figures working in the same national tradition.
Betsy J. Rosasco
Research Curator of European Painting and Sculpture
Pastures Green and Dark Satanic Mills: The British Passion for Landscape is organized by the American Federation of Arts and Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales. The exhibition tour and catalogue are generously supported by the JFM Foundation, Mrs. Donald M. Cox, and the Marc Fitch Fund. In-kind support is provided by Barbara and Richard S. Lane and Christie’s. The exhibition at Princeton has been made possible by support from the Frances E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund; the National Endowment for the Arts; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; and Susan and John Diekman, Class of 1965. Additional support has been made possible by the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; the Judith and Anthony B. Evnin, Class of 1962, Exhibitions Fund; the Rita Allen Foundation; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts; Katherine P. Holden M.D., Class of 1973, and Joshua Jaffe M.D.; and the Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum.