Samuel Palmer (1805–1881)
Vision and Landscape
March 7–May 29, 2006
Samuel Palmer ranks among the most important British landscape painters of the Romantic era. Marking the two hundredth anniversary of the artist's birth, this exhibition is the first major retrospective of his work in nearly eighty years, uniting some one hundred of his finest watercolors, drawings, etchings, and oils from public and private collections in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and the United States. The exhibition highlights the artist's celebrated early work, executed in a visionary style inspired by William Blake, and reexamines Palmer's vibrant middle-period Italian studies and masterful late watercolors and etchings. It also includes a selection of works by artists in Palmer's circle.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition places special emphasis on the artist's early work. In 1822, Palmer met the artist John Linnell, who encouraged him to study Old Master prints and introduced him to William Blake (1757–1827). In response, Palmer produced visionary, intensely original works that remain compellingly fresh to twenty-first-century eyes. Examples on view include Early Morning, A Rustic Scene, and Palmer's celebrated Self-Portait (all Ashmolean). After moving to the Kent village of Shoreham in 1826, Palmer produced celebrated watercolors such as In a Shoreham Garden (Victoria and Albert), Oak Trees, Lullingstone Park (National Gallery of Canada), and A Cow-Lodge with a Mossy Roof (Yale Center for British Art). Palmer remained at Shoreham for nine years, painting The Sleeping Shepherd (private collection) and other poetic pastoral scenes.
Disillusioned with his isolated life in the countryside, Palmer left Shoreham in 1835 and traveled through Devon and Wales in search of new subjects. He embraced a more naturalistic vision in Scene from Lee (Fitzwilliam Museum) and A Cascade in Shadow (private collection). After marrying Hannah Linnell in 1837, Palmer set off for Italy, where he drew the evocative Cypresses at the Villa d'Este (Yale Center for British Art) and painted the more finished A View of Ancient Rome (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery).
The exhibition concludes with works from Palmer's maturity, painted after his return to England in 1840. At the Old Water-Colour Society, he exhibited dramatic compositions such as King Arthur's Castle Tintagel and elegiac landscapes such as Christian Descending into the Valley of Humiliation (both Ashmolean). In 1850, Palmer took up etching and became one of the most innovative printmakers of the age. The Weary Ploughman, The Bellman, and The Lonely Tower demonstrate a return of the bold, imaginative experimentation of Palmer's youth, now refined by the wisdom of experience.
Late in life, Palmer received a commission for a series of large watercolors inspired by the poetry of Milton, working on them until his death in 1881. The exhibition concludes with six luminous works related to this series, among them The Lonely Tower (Huntington).