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British Paintings

We look out onto a landscape with low, grassy hills to the left, a lake to the right, and a brick building in the center distance below a sky filled with towering white clouds. The horizon line bisects the horizontal canvas. A wooden fence in the foreground crosses the landscape from the lower left corner and disappears where the land slopes down to meet the water at the center of the painting. Several black and white cows graze in the field beyond the fence to our left. Two men in a wooden boat pull in nets on the lake to our right near a pair of swans. The lake crosses the composition in the middle ground, disappearing into a culvert in the distance. A donkey pulls a small carriage with two people near a bridge that crosses the lake in the middle distance to our left. The large brick house is visible through a break in the full, deep green trees that line the horizon. The clouds cast noticeable shadows in the brightly sunlit scene.

John Constable, Wivenhoe Park, Essex, 1816, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.10

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The history of British painting is intimately linked with the broader traditions of European painting. Kings and queens commissioned portraits from German, Dutch, and Flemish artists. Holbein, Van Dyck, and other eminent foreign portraitists imparted an aura of grandeur to even their most unimposing sitters.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, young members of the British upper classes broadened their education with the Grand Tour of continental Europe. They encountered a sophisticated level of artistic achievement that influenced their tastes as art patrons. To ensure similarly high standards in Britain, the Royal Academy was founded in London in 1769. Its first president was Sir Joshua Reynolds, a brilliant painter of lively and elegant portraits as well as an influential lecturer/author whose Discourses authoritatively addressed many aesthetic topics—including the preeminence of history painting. Royal Academicians and American ex-patriots Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley became celebrated as memorializers of the recent past. John Martin, around the same time, created dramatic, multifigured, biblical panoramas.

The late 18th century saw a growing interest in landscape painting. Some artists, such as Richard Wilson, painted idealized scenes imbued with the spirit of the classical past, while others, such as Joseph Wright of Derby, pursued more individual and personal visions of the natural world. Thomas Gainsborough, although best known for his fashionable portraits, painted highly imaginative landscapes and seascapes that transcend specific time and place.

The great flowering of English landscape paintings came during the first half of the 19th century, primarily in the work of two masters, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. Constable’s true-to-life views of the verdant English countryside emphasized the essential harmony and purity of nature. Turner, on the other hand, was a romantic who expressively dissolved forms in terms of light and atmosphere. With their fresh vision and powerfully original styles, Constable and Turner profoundly influenced the work not only of many subsequent British painters but of countless other American and European artists as well.