This magnificent landscape, a large, 30-by-44-inch gouache on paper in brilliant condition, was created by one of the most popular and successful view painters of the 19th century. Although Carlo Bossoli is little known in America, he has been widely collected in Europe. Bossoli updated the Italian tradition of vedute (view) paintings from the late 18th century into a new 19th-century mode, incorporating industry, railways, war, and exotic locales. Above all Bossoli was a romantic, like J.M.W. Turner, frequently showing panoramas, the dramatic heights and depths of soaring mountains and plunging valleys, and strong light effects such as fires, backlighting, and sunsets.
The disastrous Crimean War fostered demand for images of Balaklava, as the site was made famous by reports from the front, and also by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s patriotically romanticized Charge of the Light Brigade (1854). Besides his three more topographical paintings of Balaklava circulated in an 1856 set of color lithographs, Bossoli sold at least three other views in 1855, 1856, and 1857, of which this is the last and by far the grandest, apparently done for the Duke of Hamilton.
Many of the smaller, more detailed images of the Crimea during the war were made by foreigners who came there for the first time and stayed only briefly, whereas this panorama was created by someone who actually grew up in the region. Bossoli knew from his youth not only how crucial the Crimean peninsula was for controlling the Black Sea, but also the complexity of its history: the natural harbor of Balaklava protected by surrounding mountains, the settlement’s founding by the ancient Scythians, its control by the Greeks, then the building of the mountaintop fortress by the Genoese in the 14th century, its capture by the Turks in the 15th century, and by the Russians under Catherine the Great.
Bossoli, like Turner, infused contemporary reality with many layers from his knowledge both of history and of the details of nature, creating a romantic vision of his subject. The mountains are higher, the cliffs more sheer, the fortress lonelier, the valleys more fathomless, with birds whirling in their depths, the sea more panoramic, including even the curvature of the earth. Yet the foreground of flinty rocks and scrub vegetation is precisely rendered, and the population of allied soldiers—very temporary in the history of Balaklava—is replaced by more timeless shepherds and brigands. All this lies beneath the majestic sky, proceeding from empyrean blue through varieties of clouds to the mists of infinite distance.
signed: C. Bossoli
[Frost & Reed, London]. Sale, New York, Christie's, 26 January 2011, lot 313; [Luca Baroni, London]; purchased 2011 by NGA.
- From Neoclassicism to Futurism: Italian Prints and Drawings, 1800- 1925, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2014 - 2015.
- Robison, Andrew. "Carlo Bossoli, Balaklava." National Gallery of Art Bulletin 46 (Spring, 2012): 24-26, color repro.