Art review: Expanding Horizons: Giovanni Battista Lusieri and the Panoramic Landscape

Lusieri's Bay of Naples from the Palazzo Sessa records the view from the home of sir William Hamilton
Lusieri's Bay of Naples from the Palazzo Sessa records the view from the home of sir William Hamilton
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ALMOST half of the work Giovanni Battista Lusieri produced during his life was lost in a shipwreck, but the paintings that survive show why he was briefly the most celebrated landscape artist in the world. Just don’t look too closely at his leaves.

Expanding Horizons: Giovanni Battista Lusieri and the Panoramic Landscape

Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

Rating: *****

Artistic reputations rise and fall. Stars of today set as others, now dim, rise to brilliance. Even so, it is very unusual for an artist much celebrated in his time to vanish from sight completely for 200 years, but that is what happened to Giovanni Battista Lusieri. In 1801 a contemporary called him “the most celebrated artist at present in the world”. The Scottish banker Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo wrote: “His landscapes in transparent Water-Colours are the most exact and eloquent transcriptions of Nature that I ever saw.” But have you ever heard of him?

Thanks to the determination of Scottish National Gallery curator Aidan Weston-Lewis, Lusieri has now been rescued from oblivion. He was indeed an extraordinary artist. He was born in Rome, but it is not known where he trained. His father was a silversmith, and artists such as Hogarth, for instance, progressed from engraving on silver to making art, so Lusieri may have done the same. Indeed his drawings, especially of figures, do have a hard, clear line as though engraved on silver.

Lusieri painted almost exclusively in watercolour, working on the spot, out-of-doors, but this did not limit the size of his pictures. Indeed he specialised in big, panoramic landscapes. Three pictures of Rome with a missing fourth once formed a panorama of the city, for instance. They are astonishingly meticulous and detailed, but this is matched by his mastery of light and atmosphere. What had been ancient Rome was then mostly gardens, and the misty distances of the Tiber as it winds through them are as beautifully seen as the ruins scattered among them. A view of St Peter’s looking across the Tiber is a masterpiece of observed light.

From Rome Lusieri moved to Naples and in a spectacular painting almost three metres wide of the Bay of Naples from the Palazzo Sessa, the foreground is meticulously seen, down to the itemised washing on the line, but as the blue horizon merges with the sky, light takes over. Working in Naples, he also painted several eruptions of Vesuvius. Like everything else to which he turned his attention, his study was intense and his pictures of the volcano glowing against the night sky are extraordinary. They also include a beautiful essay in oil paint. The medium, unusual for him, was presumably chosen to capture the chromatic intensity of the eruption which was beyond the scope of watercolour. He also became an expert in the study of the great Doric temples of Paestum, south of Naples, the subject of a particularly beautiful painting here. His observation was so meticulous that you can even see the traces left by molluscs on the columns of the temple of Serapis at Pozzuoli that was once submerged beneath the sea. One thing he wasn’t good at was leaves, however. His trees all look the same which has a very odd effect when he paints the wooded banks of a river. Threatened by Napoleon but aided by Nelson, the Bourbon court of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies fled Naples for Sicily. Lusieri went too. A distant view of Palermo, although unfinished, is a marvellous study of southern light. At Agrigento, he continued his study of surviving Greek temples and he also studied the ruins of Taormina. A small, silvery painting looking from Taormina towards Etna is wonderfully atmospheric.

Because of the meticulous nature of his painting and his interest in classical buildings, Lusieri developed an unrivalled knowledge of classical architecture. With this qualification, he joined Lord Elgin to work as an artist, but also as a manager in Elgin’s expedition to study the antiquities of Greece. They reached Athens in 1801. It was not part of the original plan, but his job led to Lusieri supervising the controversial removal – controversial at the time, too – of the sculptures from the Parthenon, known ever since as the Elgin marbles. When Elgin left Athens, Lusieri stayed and remained in the city until his death in 1821. He was separated from his patron, not only by distance, but for much of the time by the uncertainties of war. He remained nominally in his employ until faced with his own financial crisis, Elgin unkindly ended the contract shortly before the artist’s death.

Over all that time, although evidently he received some support, Lusieri was never actually paid the £200 a year promised in his contract. Nor, however, did Elgin get the artwork that was his side of the bargain. This turned out to be seriously bad luck for Lusieri’s reputation. When, after his death, his pictures were sent back from Greece, almost half his life’s work went down with the ship that was carrying it. Some pictures of Greece did escape, however, sent home before the wreck. These include a superb watercolour of the Parthenon bequeathed to the NGS long ago by Lady Mary Ruthven who knew Lusieri in Greece and which was for a long time attributed to her. The gallery also recently acquired a superb oil painting of the Monument of Philoppapus, one of only two oils in the show. After the artist’s death, Lord Elgin did acquire a lot of his work and almost half of the exhibition is on loan from the present earl. Much has been sold, however, including parts of pictures painted on multiple sheets sold separately and now reunited for the first time including a wonderful, unfinished panorama of the Plain of Caserta.

The works lost in the shipwreck included a 25-foot panorama of Athens. If it had survived, it would surely have been well-known. Even so, it might not have been enough to preserve Lusieri’s reputation which was victim, not only of shipwreck, but also of a profound shift in fashion. To paint on such a scale using only watercolour would look nowadays like the perverse pursuit of difficulty for its own sake, like Turner Prize painter George Shaw using sticky model maker’s Humbrol paints. But for Lusieri the tonal delicacy and the precision of drawing that were possible with watercolour were the whole point of what he did. The difficulties of painting his pictures out-of-doors on multiple sheets of paper were incidental to the accuracy that was his overriding purpose. That, however, was to tell against him. His art began to look dry and unimaginative. Pictorial information was his great strength, but it came to be not the information it contained but the feeling it expressed that was the measure of a picture’s significance. Lusieri himself was aware of this shift of taste, but dismissed it.

His chosen medium, watercolour, reflected the paramount importance of information to him. Although it became famous in the hands of Turner for its brilliance as an expressive medium, watercolour was originally valued for its restraint. Much of the information available about antiquity was there in the landscape. Using watercolour, an artist could deal with the breadth and light of the southern sky, but also record the significant detail without overburdening the picture. Finished watercolours were relatively cheap and portable, too. For amateur antiquarians on the Grand Tour, they were the perfect acquisition. Where there is demand, there is soon supply. Lusieri was only one of a good many artists who provided it. As the greys and greens of his pictures demonstrate, the colour range available in watercolour was still very limited, but this was actually an advantage. It let the drawing speak. Indeed in Lusieri’s own later work, he seems first to have lost interest in atmosphere and then eventually almost to have abandoned colour altogether in favour of extraordinarily minute drawing with a fine pen or hard pencil, but still on a grand scale. These minimalist drawings now look very modern. They were several rather similar in the recent ECA degree show. Perhaps his time has come at last.

• Until 28 October