They might be small—few are much larger than a postcard—but the plein air oil sketches at the Morgan Library & Museum are stunningly immersive landscapes from northern Europe. Offering Romantic visions of nature and man, they are studies from a nascent artistic movement of Romantic nationalism that found favor among German and Scandinavian painters of the nineteenth century. “Plein Air Sketching in the North,” an exhibition installed in the Morgan’s Lower Level Gallery, on view through August 25, presents viewers with an understatedly impressive array of works packed into a small space between two entrances to the auditorium.
These thirteen Germanic landscapes display a sliver of the Thaw Collection of oil sketches, owned jointly by the Morgan and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show is a program of the Morgan’s Drawing Institute. No individual curators’ names are attached to the exhibition.
Though the sketches lack overt political imagery, they idealize and glorify the unique geography of their respective countries at a time of insurgent nationalism in Europe.
The assembled pieces present a vivid tour of Germany, Denmark, and Norway at a tumultuous time, artistically as well as politically, for all of Europe. As the new ideologies of nationalism and liberalism, ascendant since the French Revolution, raged against the monarchist status quo, Romanticism and Realism came into conflict with Rococo ornamentation and Neoclassical grandeur. These pieces, tending towards the Romantic in their portrayals of town and country, emerged from the confluence of politics and culture. Though the sketches lack overt political imagery, they idealize and glorify the unique geography of their respective countries at a time of insurgent nationalism in Europe.
Nature studies by Lorenz Frølich, a Dane, and the Norwegians Thomas Fearnley and August Cappelen (1837, ca. 1829–30, and ca. 1850, respectively) show aged, towering trees and open skies. One’s eyes turn as readily to the forest floor as to the leafy giants themselves. Colors are saturated and emotional. There is a weepy, melancholic tone about these pieces, with golden-hour lighting evoking a sense of sorrow and longing. These latter two cardstock sketches are vividly colored, portraying a particular Nordic beauty in a way that suggests the artists’ patriotic affinities.
Fearnley’s Escarpment with Tree Stumps, Romsdal (1836), depicts upturned earth, covered with verdant grass, yet adorned with broken and bare tree stumps. It is a jarring sketch, its rough terrain reflected in its casual composition. Fearnley dabbles here in Romantic explorations of color and light, attempting some harsh realism as well. The experimental result is amorphous and vexing.
Johan Christian Dahl’s two cloud studies (1828 and ca. 1830), one above the other, show that even these unassuming sketches can have a weighty impact. These are two different scenes, and though they share an artist, they do not share composition or emotion. The higher of the two focuses on the sky, golden light breaking through rosy clouds. The bottom depicts an expansive vista, where low, ominous clouds pass over dense, green woods. The higher is a focused study of color and light, whereas the lower examines contrast on a grand scale. Unfortunately, due to the arrangement of these paintings, the strained viewer cannot help but see both in a single gaze.
Hummel’s piece exudes a Wagnerian sense of the mythic, as if Hummel is depicting Valhalla.
Another vertical juxtaposition is that of two sunset sky studies by the German artists C. M. N. Hummel and C. G. Carus (ca. 1850 and ca. 1830, respectively). Hummel’s work is more in the vein of Dahl’s cloud studies than that of Carus’s brooding horizon. Hummel’s gaze looks at lush heavens glowing in bright pink and yellow tones. The piece exudes a Wagnerian sense of the mythic, as if Hummel is depicting Valhalla. Meanwhile Carus’s piece indulges less in vibrant color, though it is not necessarily less spiritual. Carus meditates on dark forests in the distance and their relationship with the gabled wooden village at the fore. His is a brooding reflection on man’s place in the expanse of nature and its dark beauty.
Similarly, Dahl’s 1849 study of a birch tree in a torrential storm seems inextricable from its geopolitical circumstances. For a sketch, presumably composed en plein air in a storm, it achieves the combination of realism and Romantic emotionality that Fearnley so plainly missed in his woodland sketch. Might its wind-blown intensity reflect the tumult of the revolutions that began across Europe in the prior year?
Dahl’s Moonlit View of Dresden (1826), proudly headlining this installation on the Morgan’s website, is exceptional. A nighttime scene of a man and his dog, this sketch is quintessentially Romantic. The miniscule figure in the foreground stares out Byronically across a glimmering Elbe River, looking past the monumental Augustus Bridge and into the vast, dark woods at the horizon. The majesty of nature dwarfs the man and even the city around him.
Constantin Hansen’s 1858 sketch of the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen is a roughly beautiful, Rococo-inspired depiction of a moving urban scene alongside a waterway. But the colorful vibrance of Denmark’s maritime capital, the perfect subject for Italianate embellishment, is unfortunately obscured by shadows cast from the frame and by dim lighting in the gallery.
The final piece is the only truly “unfinished” of these sketches, its bottom half drawn only with rough outlines in graphite. The oldest piece of the collection, Schloss Emming, between Windach and Geltendorf, seen from the East (ca. 1802) is technically simple and focuses on the civilized instead of the wild. The scene by Bavarian Wilhelm von Kobell, of a schloss, a German country estate, is distinctly ornamental, bright and facile, florid and sunny; qualities common to the German art of this period from the southern, Catholic states of Bavaria, Austria, and Württemberg. This piece could be a fairy-tale illustration or a postcard. Still, the scene is pleasant and whimsical, a charming if anticlimactic finale to a stroll down the row of sketches.
The small size of these sketches is not to their detriment. As plein air sketches, they defy their minuscule presence by successfully recreating the immersive experience of being in nature. The small, focused pieces are an aperture into another world, an opportunity to “see” what is just beyond the limitations of human perception. In this way, they are wholly representative of the Romantic tradition, in which pieces as ostensibly innocuous as tree and cloud studies can become emotional paeans to a nation’s specific natural beauty.