7. The Significance of James Macpherson’s Ossian for Visual Arts
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92 CHAPTER SEVEN The Significance of James Macpherson’s Ossian for Visual Artists Murdo Macdonald The response of visual artists to James Macpherson’s Ossian is an astonishing aspect of Macpherson’s influence. Artists began making work based on Ossian with the publication of Fingal in 1762 and are still making such work today. Many images – for example, the earliest, those of Samuel Wale (1721?–1786) and Isaac Taylor (1730–1807), published in 1762 and 1763 respectively – were intended to be engraved, and appear as illustrations of Macpherson’s text. But many were independent works of art, and it is important to emphasise that Ossian was, from its earliest appearance, giving impetus to the thinking of artists rather than simply providing a source of imagery for illustration. This is underlined by the variety of approaches taken to Macpherson’s text. For example, in 1802 one finds the English painter J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) using the inspiration of Ossian to develop his poetical vision of landscape. In complete contrast but at around the same time the French artist Anne-Louis Girodet (1767–1824) was developing a new form of dream-like figurative painting on the cusp of neoclassicism and romanticism, again with the inspiration of Ossian at its heart. The fact that Turner’s 1802 work Ben Lomond Mountains, Scotland: The Traveller – Vide Ossian’s War of Caros was presumed lost, only to be discovered in plain view but wrongly titled in 2013, echoes the cultural-political ‘losing’ of Macpherson’s text itself within academia.1 In contrast, Girodet’s Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of French Heroes, commissioned by Napoleon in 1801, has always been well known. It was part of a remarkable series of works commissioned by Napoleon from leading French artists, among them Ingres (1780–1867) and Gérard (1770–1837).2 This chapter introduces some of the extensive body of visual art to which Macpherson’s Ossian gave birth, and some of the more significant discussions of this body of work within scholarship.3 It is in four parts. First of all it considers at greater length a key feature of Ossian art touched 93 the significance of ossian for visual artists on above: the way it is closely and often self-consciously engaged in cultural and artistic questions of the day. This discussion necessarily broaches some of the key interpretations of this artistic response, and the second section completes this review of the key literature on the field. The third section offers something of a chronological survey of work made in response to Ossian, though it is one as alive to questions of thematic preoccupation and the influence of schools of thinking and the dynamics of the coterie as it is to those of date. Finally, and by way of conclusion, I suggest some ways in which the field might yet evolve and develop, in particular in its understanding of the transnational importance of Ossian as an inspiration for art. Image, Text, and Context Girodet’s work already noted was given proper context with respect to his other works in 2005, when it gave rise to one of the core themes of the major reassessment of his achievement mounted by the Louvre in Paris.4 As chance would have it, in Paris at the same time, at the UNESCO building, was an exhibition of Ossian work by an artist of our own day, Calum Colvin. The French capital thus brought together works inspired by Ossian spanning two centuries, and that conjunction is emblematic of the international and historical durability of Ossian as a starting point for visual artists. Colvin’s exhibition Ossian: Fragments of Ancient Poetry / Oisein: Bloighean de Sheann Bhàrdachd was first shown in 2002 at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.5 It is not merely a response to Ossian, but as thorough a meditation on Macpherson’s place within Scottish culture as many of those published in written form. Its wider impact has been such that it was cited on the timeline of research in Howard Gaskill’s introduction to The Reception of Ossian in Europe.6 This linkage between visual artists and scholarly consideration of Ossian is characteristic. One can find that interdisciplinary effort certainly as far back as Alexander Runciman, who was associated with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in the late eighteenth century, and it can also be seen in Turner, who shared his interest in Ossian with his patron, the antiquarian and archaeologist Richard Colt...