The mid-eighteenth century was the heyday of Georgian England. The civil and international religious wars of the previous century were a dim memory, revolution had not yet risen in France, and commercial swag was flowing into London from the far-flung empire. As brewers, gamblers, young women and musicians flocked to the capital, the prosperous citizens of London did their best to thoroughly dissipate themselves. Writers such as Henry Fielding (“Tom Jones,” 1749) and John Cleland (“Fanny Hill,” 1748) were developing the comic and pornographic novel to depict that scene, and Thomas Cannon was one of the first gay activists (“Ancient and Modern Pederasty,” 1749).
In 1768, thirty-four prominent British painters, sculptors and architects, with the official endorsement of King George III, proclaimed the establishment of a Royal Academy “to promote the arts of design.” Its first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, proclaimed the purpose to train artists capable of creating works of high moral and artistic worth. But ten years later, two of its earliest students, James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, were applying the exceptional pictorial skills of the European Baroque to that very English activity of mocking, laughing and celebrating the pomposity of authority and every other human foible. Which is to say that Rowlandson, who was himself no stranger to the gambling dens and brothels, was not the moralizer that his famous predecessor, William Hogarth, had been.
Rowlandson (1756-1827) is today best known for his graphic sexual fantasies, which are regretfully too pornographic to be shown in American art museums. (You’ll find them all online.) But as this current exhibition shows, he portrayed other popular pastimes as well, including the outdoor sketching tours of the indefatigable Dr. Syntax and the political shenanigans of that extravagant Whig statesman Charles James Fox. We may well appreciate the role that Fox played in supporting the American Revolution and abolishing slavery throughout the British empire, but for Rowlandson he was just a corpulent, boyish, hyperactive clown, which contrasts with the more sinister implications found in the postmodern prints that can be seen in the “Satirical Edge” exhibition running concurrently downstairs at the Block. Rowlandson’s spacious Baroque style adds a warmth and generosity of spirit to the depiction of his boisterous era, and the special pleasure of this exhibition are the few preparatory watercolor sketches where his quick, light touch feels so much fresher than in the finished aquatints. But he was no Goya. Just like so many of our postmoderns, he was still just a cartoonist who made the aesthetic quality of form secondary to the compelling recognition of content. (Chris Miller)
Through March 13 at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, (847)491-4000.