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Friday, March 13, 2015

Alexander Nasmyth

Edinburgh from Calton Hill, 1825, Alexander Nasmyth
Alexander Nasmyth Self Portrait
In the past I've often written about the tendency for art talent to run in families. One might even go so far as to unscientifically call it the "art gene." I've seen if firsthand in families in which I've taught several members of two generations. Usually, some have it, some don't. To a great extent creativity, whether artistic, or in some other pursuit, is a factor of intelligence--simple problem solving. Painting is, after all, nothing more than the solving of a long line of interrelated "problems," one leading to another, the vast majority of which the artist has to subjectively decide correctly lest he or she go astray, giving need for major corrections at a later stage, or if unrecognized, causing the painting to fail. Painting is learned. Intelligence is cultivated. For example, the Scottish portrait artist, Alexander Nasmyth, and his wife had eight, apparently very intelligent children--six daughters and two sons. Every single one of them became painters.
Alexander Nasmyth and his Family, 1829,  D.O. Hill
A View of Addington Surrey,
Patrick Nasmyth
As I suggested before, even in cases where the father teaches his children his trade (or attempts to), it's rare that what I called the "art gene" should be so consistently present. Nasmyth's two sons, Patrick and James, were especially successful, though each in a strikingly different manner. Patrick, the eldest of the eight, despite losing the use of his right hand in an accident, learned to paint with his left. He also lost most of his hearing, yet he became a successful London landscape painter as seen in his A View of Addington Surrey with the Shirley Mills Beyond (right).
A Steam Hammer at Work, 1871, James Nasmyth

Nasmyth's reflecting telescope
James Nasmyth, the youngest, born in 1808, was also a talented artist; but his creative skills he used as an inventor. He's credited with having invented the steam hammer around 1842, using it as the basis for co-founding Nasmyth, Gaskell and Company, a maker of machine tools. He went on to invent the shaper, an adaptation of the planer, as well as the hydraulic press all of which are still used in tool and die making today. He became so rich he retired at the age of forty-eight to pursue his interests in astronomy and photography. Though he probably couldn't be termed its "inventor," James Nasmyth built his own 20-inch reflecting telescope (left) through which he studied the moon, improving the focus mechanism to the point he became the first to draw accurate images of lunar craters, which can be identified in photos today (below, right). James Nasmyth died in 1890 at the age of eighty-two. A crater on the moon is named for him.

Sketch of Unnamed Craters on the Moon,
 1860, James Nasmyth
When faced with such a talented family, it's hard to know whether to concentrate on the father or his offspring. Alexander Nasmyth was born in 1758. He grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning his art training at the Trustees' Academy, where he showed such talent that he was sent to London to study under the famous portrait painter Allan Ramsay. A wealthy patron, recognizing his talent, provided a loan allowing Nasmyth to study for two years in Italy. Upon returning to Edinburgh, Nasmyth became a successful portrait painter. He met and became friends with Scotland's most famous poet, Robert Burns (below, right) whom he painted around 1821. After a time though, his liberal opinions caused Nasmyth to lose favor with his highly conservative clientele. Eventually, he was forced to give up portraiture in favor of landscape painting. His Edinburgh from Calton Hill (top), from 1825 is one of his best.

Princes Street, Edinburgh, in 1825, during the construction of the Royal Institution, Alexander Nasmyth
Robert Burns, ca. 1821,
Alexander Nasmyth
Alexander Nasmyth's landscapes are all of actual places, usually including architectural features. He was also something of an engineer himself, designing at least two stone bridges and other structures. He sometimes painted two versions of the same landscape, the second featuring a proposed building allowing the client to judge its appropriateness for the site (an early form of today's "environmental impact study." As was the case with many artists of his time, Nasmyth's talent was versatile enough, his interests so highly diversified, and his struggle to support a wife and eight kids so acute, that there is a broad variety to his artistic endeavors. He even designed stage sets (below) and became involved in planning the expansion of the city of Edinburgh (above).

Stage set design for Heart of Midlothian; Dean's Cottage, ca. 1819, Alexander Nasmyth
The Elder Nasmyth's youngest son's interest in science and engineering came from his father. When England's first steam boat chugged along Scotland's Forth and Clyde Canal in 1812, Alexander Nasmyth was on board, a member of the crew. He later painted the boat, The Comet (below) in 1816. Although he painted only a few of them, one client sought him out to paint his dogs. Today they are some of Nasmyth's rarest and most valuable works, similar to his Dog in a Landscape, (bottom) from 1790. Nasmyth's list of students included more than just his eight talented children. One student is said to have been John James Ruskin, who went on to teach his son to paint, the famous (or infamous) British art critic, John Ruskin. Alexander Nasmyth died in 1840 at the age of eighty-two.

The paddle steamer Comet, 1816, Alexander Nasmyth
Dog in a Landscape, 1790, Alexander Nasmyth


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