Ladies and gentlemen, the ‘Zebra’ has left the building

George Stubbs, 1724–1806, British, Zebra, exhibited 1763, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art
George Stubbs, 1724–1806, British, Zebra, exhibited 1763, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection framed, recto

Zebra,” by George Stubbs — one of the most iconic works of art in the Yale Center for British Art’s collection — has crossed Chapel St. for the first time to hang in the Yale University Art Gallery, along with hundreds of other treasures of Romantic-era art from the two museums.

The exhibition, “The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760–1860” — on view at the Yale Art Gallery through July 26 — represents the first time that the two renowned collections have melded together on this scale. On view are more than 300 paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints, sculptures, medals, and photographs from the art museums, as well as a few key loans from the Lewis Walpole Library, and private lenders. Together, these works explore more than a century of Romantic art in Europe and Great Britain.

With the Yale Center for British Art closed through 2015 to complete its building conservation project, a number of its greatest hits have found a temporary home in the gallery’s exhibition galleries, as well as its permanent collection.

This was a special opportunity for a number of treasures from the Yale Center for British Art’s collections to be placed in conversation with an equal number of treasures from the Yale University Art Gallery,” said Amy Meyers, director of the center. “We’re deeply grateful to the gallery for being our partner in this creative way.”

Yale is home to one of the largest collections of art in the country that is open to the public at no charge.

According to Jock Reynolds, The Henry J. Heinz II Director at the gallery, “Yale’s two great teaching museums offer free daily public admission to their vast collections and to all of their educational programs, and are likely outmatched in this regard only by the many museums that comprise the well federally subsidized Smithsonian Institution of Washington, D.C.”

Over the next few months, visitors to “Critique of Reason,” will have an unprecedented opportunity to see masterworks by Joseph Mallord William Turner hanging opposite those of Giovanni Piranesi, George Stubbs across from Eugène Delacroix, Francisco de Goya across from William Blake, and John Constable alongside Théodore Géricault.

Romanticism and visual art

The term “Romanticism” traditionally applies to a cultural and political movement in Europe from the French Revolution through the early 19th century. According to the exhibition curators, “Romanticism was deemed a foil to the Enlightenment, overthrowing the reign of reason and reasserting the value of fantasy, spirituality, and the individual psyche.”  

A detail of “A Lion Attacking a Horse” by Stubbs from the Yale Center for British Art presents exacting depiction of animal anatomy in a dramatic composition.

A detail of “A Lion Attacking a Horse” by Stubbs from the Yale Center for British Art presents exacting depiction of animal anatomy in a dramatic composition.

The exhibition — named for Emmanuel Kant’s book “Critique of Pure Reason” from 1781 —  focuses exclusively on visual art and broadens the definition of Romanticism.

We knew right away that we wanted to stretch the chronological boundaries in order to encompass works as early as the 1760s, and as late as the 1860s,” said A. Cassandra Albinson, curator of painting and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art.

Fellow curator Lisa Hodermarsky, the Sutphin Family Senior Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at the gallery, added that it’s often thought that British and European Romantic art developed as two separate schools. The exhibition, which is divided into eight sections, aims to dispel that interpretation.

The artists of this period were actually going back and forth quite a bit across the channel, knew each other, went to each other’s exhibitions, and sometimes shared studios, like Bonington and Delacroix,” she said.

Critique of Reason” opens with “Nature: Spectacle and Specimen,” showcasing works that straddle the line between art and science. There, Stubbs’ “Zebra” hangs next to a lithograph of a tiger by Delacroix, overlooking sculpture studies of animals by Antoine-Louis Barye.

Another section, “The Artist as Social Critic,” challenges the notion of the Romantic artist as an isolated dreamer removed from society and politics.

This idea of the Romantic artist who is a solitary genius, alone in his garret, is a misreading,” said Albinson. “Many of these artists were socially engaged, presenting their ideas about what was happening in the world in a very personal way.”

Of particular note is Goya’s “Disasters of War,” which is like an exhibition within an exhibition. According to Hodermarsky, the set of 80 prints, which was the artist’s response to the gruesome end of the Napoleonic Wars, are almost never exhibited all together.

They were etched between 1810 and 1820, but weren’t published until the 1860s, long after Goya’s death. There are scenes of mutilation, firing lines, mass hangings, dismemberment, garroting — the most grotesque forms of torture and murder,” she said.

Along the same lines, three hand-colored etchings by James Gillray, on loan from the Walpole Library, offer biting criticism of the French Revolution. 

The largest section — “Landscape and the Perceiving Subject” — contains some of Albison and Hodermarsky’s favorite walls in the show. In this part of the exhibition, located on the top floor of the art gallery, filtered natural light illuminates works by Turner, Constable, Corot, and Bonington.

The largest section in the exhibition is devoted to landscape, featuring some of the most renowned works in Yale collections, including those by Turner, Constable, Corot, Piranesi, and Bonington.
The largest section in the exhibition is devoted to landscape, featuring some of the most renowned works in Yale collections, including those by Turner, Constable, Corot, Piranesi, and Bonington.

Asked if is there anything that Hodermarsky wishes she didn’t have to return to the Yale Center for British Art, she says, “Are you kidding me? Several things! ‘A View of Matavai Bay,’ by William Hodges is near and dear to my heart. I’ve coveted it for a while. It was painted on Captain Cook’s second voyage to the South Pacific.”

As for Albinson, there are a few things she wishes she could take back with her from the Yale University Art Gallery: “The Gericault prints are absolutely amazing.”

Creative Collaborations

While “Critique of Reason” is by far the largest joint exhibition ever organized by the two art museums, it is by no means the first. In fact, the museum and library collections at Yale have a long history of collaborating on projects and regularly lend works to one other.

The Haas Family Arts Library has organized a companion exhibition to “Critique of Reason.” On view through Aug. 21, “Illuminated Printing: William Blake and the Book Arts,” — curated by Jae Rossman, acting director of the library — includes works by contemporary artists who have been influenced by Blake.

There are cross-Chapel Street connections and collaborations happening all the time, both teaching and exhibitions,” said Albinson.

In 2011, the art museums joined to showcase the work of Rebecca Salter, a British abstract artist who lived and worked in Kyoto. The Yale Center for British Art presented a survey of Salter’s work while a companion exhibition at the Yale Art Gallery used her work as a starting point for exploring the relationship between Japanese and Western practice.

Last fall the museums, libraries, and Gilder Lehrman Center collaborated on a series of exhibitions and programs related to visual representations of slavery in the 18th-century British Empire.

Currently, the gallery’s exhibition “Whistler in Paris, London, and Venice” includes one of the center’s most notable works, “Nocturne in Blue and Silver,” and prints and drawings from the Cushing Medical Library’s collection are part of the Yale School of Art exhibition “Side Show.” The Peabody Museum of Natural History regularly lends specimens and includes works from the art collections, as in its “Echoes of Egypt” exhibition in 2013.

The collections speak to each other in fascinating ways, and we’re still realizing all the connections,” said Hodermarsky.

According to the exhibition organizers, “Critique of Reason” has opened up the idea of what they can do with the art museum collections.

It’s been exciting to see how they can complement each other; they look spectacular together and can bring out interesting themes,” said Albinson.

Hodermarsky added that she already has two ideas for future collaborative exhibitions.

It would be interesting to divide a show in such a way so that you wouldn’t be able to understand it unless you visited both museums,” she said.

Critique of Reason” will be on view at the Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., Tuesdays–Fridays, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thursdays until 8 p.m. (September–June); and Saturdays–Sundays, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission is free.

The exhibition has been curated by, at the art gallery, Lisa Hodermarsky and Paola D’Agostino, the Nina and Lee Griggs Assistant Curator of European Art; at the center, A. Cassandra Albinson and Nina Amstutz, postdoctoral research associate; and Izabel Gass, a graduate research assistant for both museums.

A related symposium, “The Romantic Eye,” will take place April 17–18 at the gallery and is also free and open to the public.

A walk through ‘The Critique of Reason’

The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760–1860,” takes visitors on a journey through eight distinctive sections.

Nature: Spectacle and Specimen” explores the tension between artistic and scientific representation at the turn of the 19th century. See images of Mount Vesuvius erupting and animals in combat. “A Lion Attacking a Horse” by Stubbs presents exacting depiction of mammalian anatomy in a theatrical composition.

An entire wall devoted to Goya’s “Disasters of War,” showing all 80 prints in the series, is an exhibition within an exhibition.
An entire wall devoted to Goya's “Disasters of War,” showing all 80 prints in the series, is an exhibition within an exhibition.

Distant Lands, Foreign Peoples” reveals the artist as an explorer, fascinated by remote worlds, such as that of the “Seated Turk” by Bonington and early photographs of Egyptian ruins by Antonio Beato.

Using dissident political imagery, “The Artist as Social Critic” explores the Enlightenment mission of free thought and action. Works like Géricault’s “Retour de Russie” (Return from Russia) serve as scathing indictments of war and Imperial ambition.

Religion after the Age of Reason” illustrates changing approaches to sacred themes in the Romantic era, as in the work of William Blake’s “Jerusalem.” Complementing this section is “The Literary Impulse,” which showcases a range of works inspired by literature, from the writings of Dante and Shakespeare to Lord Byron and Goethe.

Landscape and the Perceiving Subject” boasts some of the most breathtaking works in Yale’s collections. Paintings such as Constable’s “Hadleigh Castle” exemplify how the Romantics used their careful observation of nature, space, light, and weather to evoke mood and meaning.

Beyond Likeness” focuses on Romantic portraiture, which emphasized the psychological state of the subject, the great metaphysical challenge of the age. In Delacroix’s “Portrait of Count Charles de Mornay,” for example, visitors can observe the empathetic relationship between sitter and viewer.

Finally, “The Changing Role of the Sketch” features objects that illustrate how technical processes changed with widening ambitions for art. Constable’s “Cloud Studies” reveals how the Romantic sketch would influence later movements from Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism.

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