Changing Beauty

“Picture galleries should be the townsman’s paradise of refreshment… There in the space of a single room, the townsman can take his country walk – a walk beneath mountain peaks, blushing sunsets with broad woodlands spreading out below.  walk thorough green meadows… by rushing brooks where he watches and watches till he seems to hear the foam whisper.”

This was the view of author Charles Kingsley on the role of art galleries in the 19th century, a far cry from the cluttered walls of the 18th century galleries, or the even earlier displays that were a mixture of cabinets of curiosities, art, craft, and natural history.

Up until the late 19th century, the idea of display related to the notions of beauty, which was still based on the classical ideals of purity and rules. Dutch landscapes, no matter how fine, were still only seen as depictions of crude nature, so  inferior to the work of the Italians.

But as the clutter of the Royal Academy shows brought art to the masses from the 1770s, there were also commercial galleries which concentrated on the spectacle, with  the public paying to see dioramas, panoramas and a range of other specacles that pushed the limits of art beyond 2 dimensional images crowded onto walls.

By the time the National Gallery opened in London in 1838 there were calls for pictures to be better displayed. Ruskin wanted pictures to be at eye level, so all could be given equal attention. The new curator of 1843 Charles Eastlake was well read on notions of colour and perception, so believed that if art was worthy of being included in the national collection, it deserved to be viewed and valued in its own right. Consideration of the lighting and colours of the walls were also to be considered. For a time, the walls were dark red as this was the complementary colour to the gold of most of the frames.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, the scientist and politician, and friend of Goethe and Schiller, promoted the idea of individuality, and this influenced his involvement in the building of the new art galleries in Berlin. Charles Eastlake was influenced by these ideas, turning away from the idea that beauty was based on imitation, but that each object had its own intrinsic beauty, as Schiler wrote:

Let none be like to another, yet each resemble the highest,

But how to accomplish this? Say – let each be complete in himself

Eastlake and the German theorists brought a new vision to British art that still influences our art. They combined a high degree of theoretical knowledge on visual art and design, with an ability to use written sources to date works, so this was the beginning of art history in the modern sense. This allowed individual perception to become the driving force in both the production and appreciation of art. It also led to the rise of art speak, and the acres of gobbldygook that at times bury the work itself.

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