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Friday, July 10, 2015

Samuel Prout

Salving from the Wreck, Samuel Prout. Ruins didn't necessarily have to be Roman.
Ships would do.
Scene from a Church Porch,
Samuel Prout
Today, when we say a scene is "picturesque" we simply mean it's attractive, interesting, perhaps a bit old-fashioned, quaint, or scenic. All that is a perfectly legitimate use of the word. However, there's more to it than that. Back in the early 1700s, and as much as a hundred years later, there was an art style known as Picturesque. You couldn't call it a movement, really, (it wasn't that organized), and it was almost entirely limited to England. The word picturesque was somewhat more limited in meaning then than the manner in which we use it today. It meant literally “in the manner of a picture," or "fit to be made into a picture." In practical usage at the time, it was simply a fancy term for ruins. During the 18th-century and well into the Romantic era of the 19th, the British developed a strange fascination (or infatuation) with the past, even going so far as to try living in the past. Today we'd call them conservatives, I suppose. The wealthy built entire castles in ruins, either to live in or as merely garden decorations. It was as if they all wanted to bring home with them the Roman forum from their "grand tour" as a set piece for their back yards. At the very least, they liked paintings of such scenes. If they were of modest means or the frugal sort, they bought watercolors or hand-colored prints as substitutes. That's where Samuel Prout found his niche in art.

The Chapel of St. Joseph of Arithamthea, Glastonbury, from the South East, Samuel Prout

Samuel Prout, by Charles Turner
Samuel Prout was born in the English seaport of Plymouth. He was the fourth of fourteen children, the son of a naval outfitter in the dockyards (I almost spelled the word "naval" with an "e".) In grammar school, his headmaster noticed his talent and that of a young Benjamin Robert Haydon. The three of them would often spend entire days sketching rustic cottages, windmills, bridges, and waterways of the Devon area. The British had discovered the beauty of their landscape just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning to pose the threat of destroying it. Born in 1783, at the age of twenty, Prout moved to London, married, and during the next twelve years, began a family of four children. Their youngest son, Samuel Gillespie Prout, followed in his father's footsteps, also becoming a painter. The elder Prout's work has often been compared to that of Turner, Gainsborough, Constable, and Ruskin (who was his student). He was one of the first artists to have his work reproduced using lithography.

Nürnberg Henkerturm Wasserturm, 1818, Samuel Prout
Market Day, Antwerp, 1818, Samuel Prout
Around 1818, Prout packed up the wife and kids, then took the family on a working vacation through Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and France. Along the way, Prout discovered the urban landscape, its architecture, and most of all its ruined architecture. His scenes of northern European cities indicate that, even as late as the 18th-century, many of them had still not shaken off a medieval look. Prout seems to have been especially taken with Italy, especially Venice with its Romantic waterways, and Rome with its classical ruins. His painting of The Rialto Bridge (below)is quite accurate, if somewhat touristy. His Piazzetta dal Molo, Venice (bottom) is less accurate. I've been there. Either his piazza is too narrow or Prout has his memorial columns spaced too widely apart.

Pont di Rialto, Venice,  1818, Samuel Prout
In Rome, Prout seems to have found his favorite place in all the world to paint. His The Temple of Saturn and the Temple of Vespasian, the Forum, Rome (below, left), and his Tivoli, Temple of the Sibyl (below, right), would appear to be companion pieces. They were immensely popular when he got back home. The "golden glow" seeming to emanate from many of Prout's works is mostly due to the yellowing of some of his watercolor paper. Back in England, in 1829, Prout's new "picturesque" works made him so popular he was appointed "Painter in Water-Colours in Ordinary" to King George IV, and later to Queen Victoria. Samuel Prout died in 1852. Not only did his son carry on his work in watercolor, but another member of the family, John Skinner Prout, made a name for himself painting and writing books in far off Tasmania.

The Temple of Saturn and the
Temple of Vespasian, the Forum,
Rome, 1818,  Samuel Prout.
Tivoli, Temple of the Sibyl,
1818, Samuel Prout

Piazzetta dal Molo, Venice, after 1818, Samuel Prout.


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