Summer may bring you stretches in the Swiss Alps, weeks on Nantucket, or just a day at Rockaway beach, but for while you are in town, this exhibit—organized by Matthew Hargraves of the Yale Center for British Art, Rachel Sloan from the Courtauld, and Jennifer Tonkovich, now the Morgan Library & Museum’s newly endowed Eugene and Clare Thaw Curator of Drawings and Prints—emphasizes the almost spiritual effects of getting out into nature through some 30 landscapes by 18th- and 19th-century British and German artists. Lapidary works on paper by familiar romantic artists like J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich and Thomas Gainsborough depict the natural world with giddy verve.
Many of the works here, loans from the Courtauld Gallery augmented by works from the Morgan’s collection, have a preternatural lucidity to them. Thomas Girtin’s incredible Eruption of Mount Vesuvius (1800) is a pencil drawing of the exploding, molten mountain so technically supercharged it looks like a storyboard from a blockbuster action movie. Girtin had seen the smoking volcano when he toured Italy. You might not know his name—he died at age 27—but his precocity is unmistakable. Samuel Palmer’s Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (1828) is a gigantic tree with a muscular, almost human-looking gnarled trunk. Somewhere between William Blake and Hayao Miyazaki, from the swirling brown ink branches to the scribbles of color around the mossy forest floor, the drawing has a painted-on-acid, visionary quality we don’t associate strongly enough with 19th-century English art.
These works on paper were for the most part not sketches for larger paintings. Instead, they are experiments in observation and sensibility crafted while artists worked outdoors. Whether they were executed while hiking in the Alps, or on a grand tour of Italy, or just looking at the sky, these were paintings made mostly by young men carrying copies of Goethe in their rucksacks and harboring a deep desire to not just represent the landscape, but to be in dialogue with God through the natural world.
Tiny points of contact between German and English works abound. Turner’s On Lake Lucerne, Looking Towards Fluelen (1841), in which light washes of bluish-white create a rich nighttime atmosphere that evokes mist on the water in moonlight, speaks to Caspar David Friedrich’s watercolor Moonlit Landscape—both conjure a glowing moon with haunting effect. John Constable, Johan Christian Clausen Dahl and Johann Georg von Dillis all share an interest in deft experimental cloud studies. Mountainous peaks plunging vertiginously into Alpine lakes, blasted tree stumps and Gothic ruins hold widespread appeal.
Exploring the great outdoors isn’t just a luxury, this show suggests. It is a spiritual and intellectual imperative that you get out of town.
(Through Sept. 7, 2014)