Jonathan Chau is a junior at Syracuse University majoring in magazine journalism with a minor in art history. He is an ardent admirer of fashion, performance art, and all things cultural (high, low, and everything in between).
In an 1876 letter, Samuel Palmer wrote that “the charm of etching is the glimmering through of the white paper even in the shadows; so that almost everything either sparkles or suggests sparkle … those thousand little luminous eyes which peer through a finished linear etching” (Art Gallery of New South Wales). This “sparkle” is undeniably present in Palmer’s etching, The Early Ploughman (1861) in which the morning sky glimmers in the background as birds flock to an unbeknownst destination. Men are hard at work tending to their oxen as a woman carrying a pitcher of water watches them in the shadows.
Palmer, as illustrated by this image and many more, was a master artist. Born in 1805 during the heyday of British Romanticism, he was influenced by poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, and Lord Byron and great artists like J. M. W. Turner. A precocious artist who exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy when he was only fourteen years old, Palmer, in time, became dissatisfied with his artistic direction. He met John Linnell, another well-known landscape artist, and he began to study prints made by the acclaimed German artist Albrecht Dürer. But it wasn’t until Palmer met William Blake that he fully embraced Romanticism.
Palmer and Blake were two English artists who met during contrasting periods in their lives. Palmer was young whereas Blake was old. Palmer was successful, selling his artworks to high-end clientele, and admired by the mainstream art society. Blake was obscure, impoverished, anti-establishment, and rejected by the Royal Academy. Palmer was stimulated by the environment surrounding him. Blake, on the other hand, was creating his own mythologies. But both artists drew attention to the significance of the natural environment. They questioned mankind’s experience with nature at a time when it was rapidly changing because of human intervention. To these artists, the environment was a divine entity crafted by God’s hands. Palmer and Blake can be seen as early ecologists – they wanted to preserve natural scenery and protect the traditional ways of rural life from the onslaught of modern civilianization.
In Blake’s masterpiece, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), he intricately combines visuals with words while portraying the dual elements of innocence (childhood) and experience (adulthood). Poetry and hand-colored prints reveal the tension between human passion and repression. The rhythms are simple and the images of children, animals, and nature are heavily influenced by the ornate illustrations found in medieval books of hours. At another level, Songs of Innocence and of Experience reflects Blake’s political and spiritual beliefs. Here too, Blake expresses radical thoughts about poverty, child labor, and the complex correspondence between state and church.
Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, among other works by the artist, would greatly influence Palmer even after Blake’s death. Palmer thought Blake’s wood engravings were “visions of little dells, and nook, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitist pitch of intense poetry. I thought of their light and shade, and looking upon them I found no word to describe it. Intense depth, solemnity, and vivid brilliancy only coldly and partially describe them” (Wilcox, 11).
Palmer wasn’t just a mere follower of Blake. He added his own perceptions to his work. His style, although mostly constant, changed as he experienced life. The Reform Bill of 1832, which shifted voting rights away from the small rural boroughs controlled by the aristocracy and landed gentry to the emerging industrialized cities, deeply affected his images. Using various techniques, Palmer added vivid detail, beauty, and roughness to what others saw as the mundane English landscape. He believed deeper perception was gained through the resources of the imagination. He was a townsman by birth but always carried a great appreciation for the rural lifestyle. Regardless, his scenes were always reflective of his own environment.
Palmer created multiple versions of The Early Ploughman. The image evokes an Italianate feel through the cypress-like trees framing its composition as in a Claudian landscape. Palmer started creating this plate in 1861 while living in Kensington and continued to modify it sporadically throughout his life. The same year, Palmer began living in turmoil. His favorite son, Thomas More Palmer, died at the young age of nineteen. The artist never fully recovered from this tragedy. Palmer’s vision, which began as vibrant and vivid, became darker, moodier, but still romantic. He re-bit The Early Ploughman’s plate to intensify the sharp contrast between light and shadow.
Palmer’s usage of light in The Early Ploughman boldly separates the foreground, midground, and background. At the center of the image, he captures an intimate view of a farmer working on his land. The farmer cares for his oxen without the help of machinery. His back is turned away from us as are his oxen. Palmer places us as explorers or observers in the composition. He positions the plowman and oxen on a slight serpentine curve, allowing for our eyes to wander and find distant figures within the image. Another farmer can be seen plowing in another narrow field. A silhouette of a mysterious woman is somewhat hidden, placed in front of layers of trees, for the viewer to discover.
Strikingly, in his composition, Palmer creates a sense of motion and sound. A tree bends in the breeze, so we can hear and see its rustling leaves. As a flock of birds flies away from the oxen, we can hear their wings flap. The birds fly towards man-made structures drawing our attention to them. A river flows under a lone bridge. A ruined arch, representing nature’s power over humankind, is illustrated at distance on a seemly deserted hill, illuminated by the sky. The sky itself is complex. Palmer depicts the moody dawn, not in monotonous shades of black, grey, or white, but with curved and meandering strands of light and dark.
Palmer emphasizes the relationship between humans and their natural environment. The scene is untouched by industry. It highlights hard work, intensive labor, and the farmer’s attachment to nature. At a time when portrait painting valorized the rich and powerful, Palmer gave value to the common rural folk like the hard-working farmer. Moreover, he depicted an everyday scene as if it were a new sight, a new discovery.
Palmer’s son, Alfred Herbert Palmer, began reprinting the plate for The Early Ploughman in 1873 under Frederick Goulding’s instructions. Through special inks and printing techniques, these prints were striking, familiar, but different from the originals. Palmer would be largely forgotten soon after his death in 1881. Alfred burned a great number of sketchbooks, notebooks, and other original works. Eventually, his father’s work was rediscovered. Palmer’s pieces are bold and feel modern, yet are two centuries old. His deft handling of form and instinct for color inspired a multitude of English artist and brought a resurgence back to the importance of landscape.
Palmer’s focus on the farmer continues to be relevant today. We continue to portray farmers as national heroes, who provide food for our growing population. While tractors and other industrial machines are still used to aid agriculture, there’s now a resurgence of more natural processes and farming techniques. Organic and farm-to-table initiatives have become buzz words as consumers look for more natural foods free of manmade chemicals, preservatives, and pesticides. Consumers are increasingly interested in buying more local produce from nearby farms.
Palmer’s depiction of rural landscapes in the age of technological advance remains strikingly relevant. Philosophers, writers, and artist question the definition of beauty as our world continues to become more industrialized. As society becomes more modern and focused on technology, nature is impacted often negatively. There is an exponential focus on innovation and creating and consuming new products. By comparison, the attempt to preserve nature lags behind. Global climate change is a reality and happening quickly.
Contemporary artists like those involved with Cracking Art are commenting on these issues through new interpretations. Originating in Biella, Italy, this five-person art collective reclaims recyclable plastics and transforms them into flamboyantly colored animal sculptures. Their major installations or “regenerations” are placed in unconventional everyday places. New Yorkers can encounter their neon-colored bears placed aside the United Nation building and their red snail in Central Park. These monumental works are also placed in rural landscapes, like the gentle hills of Woodland Farm in Louisville, Kentucky. Unnaturally large green rabbits stand unmoved next to buffalos calmly chewing on grass.
By using plastics, Cracking Art examines technological innovation, while simultaneously questioning the levels of production and the value of aesthetics in an increasingly synthetic world. The art collective brings social awareness to environmentalism through an abstract, yet direct, medium. Cracking Art asks us to ponder: what is real, what is fake, and what will happen if we allow for our environment to continue to be destroyed? These seem to be the very same questions that Palmer asked in the nineteenth century.