The exhibition in 1760 of Richard Wilson’s canvas The Destruction of Niobe’s Children inaugurated a new, revolutionary category of painting. By melding the established genres of landscape and history painting, the artist created a challenging hybrid: historical landscape. Praised by an anonymous critic for its “Greatness of Idea, beautiful composition, and admirable effect,” Niobe established Wilson’s reputation as an artist capable of rivaling his French and Italian counterparts, an extraordinary achievement at a time when indigenous art was considered inferior to European art by British connoisseurs. Wilson’s transformative vision earned him the title of the “father of British landscape painting,” and had a decisive impact both on his pupils, notably William Hodges, and the following generation of artists.
Organized to complement the exhibition William Hodges, 1744–1797: The Art of Exploration, and selected from the Center’s rich collections of paintings, prints, drawings, and rare books, Nobleness and Grandeur charted the development of historical landscape from its genesis in the mid-eighteenth century by Hodges’s mentor Richard Wilson to its culmination in the Romantic period.
Featuring some of Wilson’s most celebrated historical landscapes as well as works by Hodges, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hamilton Mortimer, John Martin, J. M. W. Turner, and John Constable, the exhibition offered new insights into the role played by landscape painting in the development of the political and artistic identity of eighteenth-century Britain.
The exhibition was organized by the Center and curated by Olivia Horsfall Turner, a graduate student in the History of Art, University College London, previously a graduate student in the History of Art, Yale University.