Monday, 24 December 2012

Cotman in Normandy

Verdict: Worth a look
When: 10 October - 13 January 2013

John Cotman, Durham Cathedral. Image courtesy British Museum

John Sell Cotman was a Victorian era landscape painter and a contemporary of Turner. This exhibition is dedicated to his works – particularly those he painted of Normandy.

One of the straplines of this show is that Cotman outsold Turner in his time, but this has more to do with the popular appeal of Cotman’s works rather than a preference for his style of painting. Napoleon had just been defeated and so the British public were eager to re-discover France hence the mass appeal of Cotman’s landscapes.

Cotman’s attention to detail is immaculate as can be seen in ‘Chateau at Fontaine-le-Henri’. It’s almost on a par with Canaletto but lacks warmth in comparison. Contemporaries such as Prout and Bonnington are displayed nearby and though they may lack Cotman’s talent in capturing subtle details, their works also feel warmer and easier for the viewer to access.

Turner and Cotman’s lives did intertwine and the exhibition does a good job of recounting their stories but the gulf in creativity is vast. There is just one sketch from Turner on display – ‘Dieppe from the East’ – yet the bright evocative colours blow all of Cotman’s works out of the water; even the full scale paintings.

Cotman did a great job of capturing daily life yet the figures in his paintings never face the viewer and this gives his works a detached feeling; Cotman comes across as more of a documenter than a painter with artistic vision. His inability to impart emotion into his paintings is evident in ‘Abbatial House of the Abbey of St. Ouen’ – he struggles to reconcile the swaying trees in the background with the cold classical architecture in the foreground. It’s as if he’s painted two separate pieces and merged them together unconvincingly.

It’s disappointing that most of the works on display are sketches rather than large scale landscapes, this exhibition also shows Cotman next to his contemporaries and in their presence he comes across as fairly average. Despite these flaws Cotman’s works are aesthetically pleasing if not gripping, and this exhibition is an interesting insight into a lesser known British landscape painter.

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