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Drawings and Prints by English Artists of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries

April 29 – May 26, 1946

John Bacon | William Blake | John Flaxman | Maria Flaxman | Henry Fusely | Grinling Gibbons | William Hamilton | John Hamilton Mortimer | James Northcote | John Opie | John Michael Rysbrack | Thomas Stothard | Sir James Thornhill | John Vanderbank | Benjamin West | Richard Westall
The names of most of the artists represented in this exhibition will mean little or nothing to the average visitor. Indeed, they meant scarcely more to the organizers of the exhibition, until a few years ago. They still would be nothing but names to them if it were not for the fortunate circumstance that the Leonora H. Gurley Collection of drawings at the Art Institute of Chcago contains an unusual number of English drawings, and among them beautiful examples of the works of Flaxman, Stothard, Fusely and of some lesser men of the years around 1800. Together, with a number of drawings from this circle given to the Art Institute by other donors, they furnish a unique opportunity to study a period of English art which, unfortunately, has been neglected for a long time.

The drawings claim our attention through their high artistic accomplishment. They prove that English draughtsmanship of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was equal to that of the contemporary artists on the Continent, a fact only seldom recognized. They betray an original and genuine spirit, different from that of any other school, and typically English. They may even prove that English painters and draughtsmen had more importance for the development of Continental art around 1800 than has so far been suspected. Through the Swiss Fusely, who was English by adoption only, English art was even directly connected with the Continent. In view of the far-reaching influence everywhere of English literature, architecture, gardening, and art theory, such an influence in the other arts should not be too surprising.

English pictures, drawings and prints of this period, however, afford to the spectator still another kind of enjoyment. More than anywhere else or at any other time, these artists were closely connected with literature, in the broadest sense of the word. About Samuel Rogers' poem we can scarcely think without remembering the graceful illustrations drawn for them by Thomas Stothard; William Hayley's name is intimately linked with those of Stothard, Romney, and Flaxman. The quite catholic interest of the period in older literature is underlined by the innumerable illustrations which thes artists made for practiclly all the masterpieces of world literature. It may suffice to point to the famous Canterbury Pilgrims by Blake and Stothard, to which now may perhaps be added a version by Flaxman. Most of the artists mentioned participated in the memorable venture of Alderman Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery. Two of them, Blake and Fusely, achieved fame as poets themselves. It must be noted that many were excellent writers on their art. Men like Opie, Barry, Fusely, Flaxman, Northcote, and many others explained in their lectures before the Royal Academy and in various occasional writings in well chosen words the principles of the style and taste which they expressed so well in their drawings, prints and paintings.

These English artists were steeped in the spirit of the dilettanti such as William Shenstone, Horace Walpole, William Beckford, Sir William Hamilton, Thomas G. Wainwright, to name the most important ones; and like them, they grew into fascinating, full-rounded personalities; some of noble and loveable nature, as Flaxman and Stothard, others full of eccentricity and unusual fire, as Fusely, Blake, and Barry. They contributed to the formation of English taste as much as philosophers like Burke and Kaimes, or amateurs like the Rev. William Gilpin, Sir Uvedale Price, and Richard Payne Knight. Without due regard to them or their work no history of taste in Europe could be written.

Ulrich Middeldorf

This text was published in the exhibition catalogue.

This exhibition was assembled by Miss Pauline King and Miss Ruth Rowe, of the Department of Art of the University of Chicago.


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