The Literary Landscape


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Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775–1851), What You Will!, 1822. Oil on canvas. Clark Art Institute. Gift of the Manton Art Foundation in memory of Sir Edwin and Lady Manton, 2007.8.107

Turner often looked to literary texts for source material for his landscapes, situating characters in settings that enhanced their story, or animating real or imaginary landscapes with familiar narratives. “The Literary Landscape” section of the exhibition displays Turner’s interpretation of the work of great English poets, including William Shakespeare and John Milton, as well as episodes from classical mythology and the Bible.

Turner was often commissioned to create illustrations for literary publications. He supplied finished watercolors that printmakers, hired by publishers, would turn into engravings. Turner carefully supervised the process of translating his images into print. The widespread distribution of Turner’s compositions in relatively inexpensive volumes familiarized a broader public with his work. 

Constable is represented in this section of the exhibition with a single sheet. While the artist sometimes appended lines of poetry to the titles of his work in exhibition catalogues (which Turner frequently practiced), Constable refrained from illustrating literature, preferring to depict the people who inhabited actual landscapes.