A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany

Dr Rachel Sloan, Assistant Curator of Works on Paper

When most people think of The Courtauld Gallery, the celebrated Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings are probably the first things to spring to mind.

What’s slightly less well known is that we also have a very fine and wide-ranging collection of British Romantic drawings and watercolours, including thirty by J.M.W. Turner.

J.M.W. Turner, On Lake Lucerne looking towards Fluelen, around 1782

J.M.W. Turner, On Lake Lucerne looking towards Fluelen, around 1841, The Courtauld Gallery

Something similar could be said of The Morgan Library & Museum in New York. The Morgan holds one of the most important collections of Old Master drawings in the world.

One of the more unusual parts of this collection is an excellent group of German Romantic landscapes by artists such as Caspar David Friedrich – works which are rarely found in such quantity and strength outside Germany.

Caspar David Friedrich,  Moonlit landscape, around 1808, The Morgan Library & Museum

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonlit landscape, around 1808, The Morgan Library & Museum

So it seemed only natural that when The Courtauld and the Morgan decided to organise a show together, we would bring together these two parts of our collections.

British and German artists played a major role in transforming the art of landscape in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In an era marked by political upheaval and the questioning of old certainties, they turned a questioning eye on the idealised landscapes prized by their predecessors.

Instead, they believed that landscapes should be informed both by direct study of nature – many of them insisted on working out of doors – and by the inner eye of the imagination.

Friedrich summed this up when he spoke of his art as ‘a dialogue with nature’.

Despite how much they have in common, we seldom have the chance to see the work of British and German Romantic artists side by side.

This small show, which features twenty-six drawings, watercolours and oil sketches – thirteen each from the Morgan and the Courtauld – offers the opportunity to do just that.

In addition to Friedrich, UK visitors will be able to discover the work of artists such as Carl Philipp Fohr, Johann Georg von Dillis and Karl Friedrich Lessing who are little or not at all represented in British collections.

Carl Philipp Fohr,  The Ruins of Hohenbaden, 1814-15, The Morgan Library & Museum

Carl Philipp Fohr, The Ruins of Hohenbaden, 1814-15, The Morgan Library & Museum

Seeing them alongside their British contemporaries, like Turner, Constable, Samuel Palmer and Thomas Girtin, allows us to think about how these artists approached similar goals in different ways.

A Dialogue with Nature isn’t intended to provide definitive answers about the relationship between Romantic artists in both countries, but rather to raise questions and start a conversation. We hope you’ll come away with your own ideas – and return often to reconsider them.

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany runs from 30 January-27 April 2014.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think of Romantic landscapes? Leave a comment or tweet using #RomanticLandscapes @CourtauldGall