This oil sketch of one of America's most famous early natural landmarks is part of the fascinating history and rediscovery of Joshua Shaw, an intrepid English-American artist, author, traveler, and inventor. It is one of a collection of eight oils that establish Shaw as an important precursor to Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School, and significantly broaden our understanding of early landscape art in the South.
Born in rural Bellingborough, Lincolnshire, Shaw was orphaned at age seven and for years led a difficult existence with little formal education and various jobs. Early apprenticeship to commercial painters helped him acquire technical skills and a reputation for artistic talent. He went to London in 1802 and began exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy. Dissatisfied with his critical reception there, Shaw departed for Bath around 1804 or 1805. For the next seven years, he based himself at this fashionable resort city while traveling extensively through the countryside, painting portraits and landscapes. Refining his talents in the modish picturesque British landscape tradition, he achieved noteworthy early success.
During his rising career, he had befriended Benjamin West, the celebrated Pennsylvania-born expatriate artist and director of London's Royal Academy. When Shaw decided to immigrate to America in 1817, West gave him letters of introduction. In 1818, he began traveling to create sketches and narrative descriptions for his project, Picturesque Views of American Scenery (1819-1821), the earliest, most comprehensive aquatint portfolio of landscapes, rivers, and landmarks in the United States. Produced in collaboration with the master engraver John Hill, the prints reveal that Shaw's sketching tours took him throughout the eastern seaboard states from New York to Georgia, and possibly as far inland as the St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi in Minnesota.
Virginia's Natural Bridge, which Shaw calls "this great natural curiosity," is the subject of two compositions in the group of eight oils. The view illustrated here is depicted from the top of the bridge, where the landscape expands in rolling hills, a golden pearlescent sky, and the winding stream below. A small figure crouches near the edge of the precipice, suggesting the daring height and grandeur of the view. In characteristic picturesque style, Shaw creates space and distance by the overlapping mountains and softening light and haze of aerial perspective. The foreground is framed on the right by shadowed areas of rock and ground, while rising into the sky are graceful, lacy trees-elements reminiscent of Claude Lorraine and his English followers.
From the artist, private collection, England; by descent in the family to Mr. John N. Mee, Sao Bras de Alportel, Portugal, until 2006
Brewer, Philip L., M.D., Spot: Southern Works on Paper, Blackman, Lynne (2008; Charleston: Hicklin Galleries, LLC/The Charleston Renaissance Gallery), 148 pages, illustrated pages 7, 110.
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