- The Idea of the English Landscape Painter: Genius as Alibi in the Early Nineteenth Century
Kay Dian Kriz’s book is an illuminating analysis of the place that landscape painting and landscape painters held within the evolving nationalistic discourse of aesthetics in the early nineteenth century. This was the “golden age” of British landscape painting, when the work of major artists like Girtin and Turner challenged older eighteenth-century conventions by producing works in watercolor and oil that were marked by both a naturalistic style and a personal and distinctive handling of media and subject matter. Kriz’s particular focus is on the way in which these artists and their styles of landscape painting emerged in the critical discourse of the time as exemplars of a native English genius in art. Spurred by powerful nationalist sentiments provoked by the Napoleonic wars, the English configuration of artistic “genius” was formulated in opposition to the French school of painting. Moreover, at a time when artistic reputations were made or broken at the large public exhibitions of the Academy and British Institution, “genius” was a concept, or in Kriz’s terms an “alibi,” that permitted English artists to compete in this market while seeming to transcend it. As this suggests, in celebrating the wholesome naturalness and refined sensibility of English landscape painters, the discourse of genius was implicitly moralistic and flattered the patriotic and puritanical sentiments of the art-consuming public.
The alibi of genius, however, was not without its complications. As much as it provided an escape from the image of the artist as market slave, it also came freighted with a discourse of interiority and transgressive imagination that could make it seem dangerously antisocial [End Page 409] and hence un-English. Thus a pictorial quality like indistinctness in the work of an artist like Turner could produce multiple and ambivalent associations, recalling Burke’s category of the sublime while hinting at the possibility of Turner’s eccentric and unsocialized genius. The establishment of genius as a category of praise was a large part of the cultural work of the early nineteenth century, and one that found its naturalizing metaphorical vehicle in landscape painting.
As this suggests, a great deal of the book’s insight into the period’s construction of landscape as the quintessential expression of English artistic genius comes from a close reading of primary sources—aesthetic theory, contemporary art reviews, artists’ writings, and drawing manuals—from attention paid to their rhetorical shifts and logical disjunctions. Kriz shows, for instance, how the initial coding of flashy atmospheric and coloristic effects in painting as “foreign,” commercial, and immoral was radically transformed when these same effects began appearing in the work of Girtin and Turner. From being signs of artificial French “glitter,” they became signs of English liberty and the hallmarks of a naturalistic British School of painting.
The visual rhetoric of landscape painting that signaled native genius spoke not only to a national politics of virtue but also to a gender politics of virility. Along these lines Kriz discusses the rise and fall of watercolor as a serious medium for landscape painting. The extraordinary atmospheric effects achieved in landscape watercolor at the beginning of the century distinguished the work of professional artists from the growing number of amateur productions by women. Nevertheless, the sheer popularity of the medium among female amateurs insured its eventual feminization and its consequent abandonment by landscape professionals.
The Idea of the English Landscape Painter is a fresh and insightful look at the familiar territory of early-nineteenth-century landscape painting. Kriz’s analysis of its stylistic innovations in terms of a discourse of a genius that spoke to the political, social, and professional needs of the period does much to illuminate the important place landscape painting held in British art and aesthetics throughout the nineteenth century. It is a book that will remake our understanding of the romantic idea of “genius” and for this reason is essential reading for cultural and art historians alike...