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18th Century Landscapes
Although the art of landscape is particularly associated with Britain, 18th century academic theorists condemned landscapes as inferior because, as Richardson declared "they cannot Improve the Mind, they excite no Noble Sentiments". That is why the Royal Academy and its first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, ranked landscape low in their strict hierarchy of subject matter (at the very top of which came "History Painting" - those pictures of mythological or Biblical events which supposedly did improve the mind and excite noble sentiments). Developments however were taking place which led up to the magnificently original work of Turner and Constable.

The taste for 17th century Italianate classical landscape was already, by the middle of the century, deeply embedded in the English consciousness (so long as it was 'historical landscape' - landscape portraying the Italian countryside in all its nobility and harmony, with the addition, needless to say, of some picturesque ruins). The first English artists who ventured to depict their own countryside were treated with indifference or even contempt. Richard Wilson spent most of his life in abject poverty, while Gainsborough, who liked nothing better than painting landscapes, had to abandon them and turn to portraits to earn a living. It is noteworthy, though, that the 18th century painters (Wilson, Gainsborough, Crome) already displayed those tendencies which were to characterise English landscape-painting in the years to come: fidelity to natural appearance combined with a poetic feeling for the English countryside, finding expression through the medium of colour.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya


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