red life, dreaming nights

sunsetBonington, Sunset in the Pays de Caux, 1828, watercolour. Wallace Collection, London. Image source: WGA
Delacroix praised his long dead friend Bonington’s “astonishing ability”, “that  lightness of touch which, especially in watercolors, makes his works a type of diamond which flatters and ravishes the eye, independently of any subject and any imitation.” [1]

Richard Parkes Bonington has been called “the Keats of painting” – if only it were that simple, we could wrap this up now in relief. Yet another marvellous boy, his vivid output and early, painful death of tuberculosis aged 25 resemble Keats’ own art and life. There’s poetry in Bonington’s brushwork, the liquid freshness of colours, the delight in shadow and light. His technical genius was in hiding technique, so that with him all the spontaneity for which other Romantics strove looks effortless. His pictures are more than just pretty; he was a painter’s painter, loved, as Delacroix said, by all who knew him.

The absence of perplexity and detail in his work is refreshing, but not Keatsian – not the mature Keats of Hyperion. His paintings are like pictures inside a Keats poem, impressions brightening up the dark walls of an Enchanted Castle, or the Chamber of Maiden-Thought in the “Mansion of Many Apartments”. [2]

FII and MargueriteBonington, Francois I and Marguerite de Navarre, c.1827. Wallace Collection. Image source: Wikipedia
“The brain, new stuff’d, in youth with triumphs gay/ Of old romance…” Keats, The Eve of St Agnes

Keats wanted to anatomize the veins of a living hand as much as luxuriate in the ephemeral, drugged visions of “dreaming nights”. Keats the trained surgeon, Constable the amateur geologist, one a pantheist, the other Anglican, wanted to go beyond communion with nature through their senses to “Tell…how came I thus, how here?” as Milton’s Adam had. “We see nothing truly till we understand it”, Constable declared. “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature.”

Part Five of THE CHARACTER OF LIGHT Continue reading