Monday, January 28, 2008
When his friend John Linnell introduced Samuel Palmer to William Blake in 1824, Palmer’s life and art were never the same. Born January 27, 1805, Palmer joined the visionary company surrounding the eccentric poet-painter Blake that later became known as The Ancients. Works such as The Magic Apple Tree (above, from 1830) stem from Blake’s influence, abounding with wild color and florid detail. A child prodigy, Palmer began exhibiting at the Royal Academy at fourteen years of age works patterned on the art of J.M.W. Turner. Turner turned Palmer on to the possibilities of the visionary landscape, but Blake opened up a cosmos of possibility for the young artist. Even Palmer himself grew wary of the powerful influence of Blake, showing his mind-blowing works to a select few initiates who shared his love of the master. While living in the Shoreham region of England in a dilapidated old cottage, Palmer painted the surrounding countryside in various stages of light and dark, often beneath romantic moonlight, as in A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star (above, from 1830). This watercolor shows Blake’s influence quite clearly, resembling some of the illustrations Blake created to accompany his poetry. Although Linnell introduced Palmer to Blake, he had doubts about Palmer’s prospects in his following of Blake’s example, especially after Palmer wed Linnell’s daughter. Palmer always struggled to make ends meet through his art and withered beneath the disapproval of his friend turned father-in-law. Teaching jobs helped with Palmer’s finances, but took valuable time away from his own painting.
In later years, Palmer developed as an engraver, gaining some commercial success while illustrating the poems of John Milton, one of Blake’s favorite poetic predecessors. The Lonely Tower (above, from 1869) conveys the dark romantic mood of much late romantic poetry and early Victorian verse. I’ve always thought that it might have made for a good illustration to Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Just as Blake himself languished in obscurity until rescued by the Pre-Raphaelites, Palmer’s reputation laid dormant until the twentieth century, when his wild colors made him seem less like a madman and more like a Fauvist. Like Blake and so many other artists ill-suited to their time, Palmer found his home in the twentieth century. Sadly, Palmer’s son destroyed many of the artist’s early work after his death in 1881, too embarrassed to have anyone see his father’s “failures.” Fortunately, enough of Palmer’s work survived to give us a glimpse of his greatness.