Over the past several months, this jewel of a city has been celebrating the tercentenary of the birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) with exhibitions, musical events, literary forums, films, and promenades retracing his steps from the earlier and later years during which he lived in and around its bucolic landscapes.
As the centerpiece of these festivities, the Musée Rath mounted an illuminating exhibition called “The Enchanting Landscape in the Days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” which takes its title from the famous Letter 23 of Rousseau’s epistolary romance Julie, or the New Heloise, in which the hero, Saint-Preux, claims he could spend his entire journey in the Swiss Valais “enchanted by the landscape.”
The supernatural beauty in these mountainous prospects charms the senses of the mind both into forgetfulness of one’s self and of everything in the world.
More than architecture, the cultural history and development of landscape styles has always had strong literary ties, and this exhibition demonstrates how, despite Rousseau’s reputation as a political theorist and philosopher of the Enlightenment, his writings dealing with a direct experience of the natural world, as in the Julie novel, revolutionized attitudes in Europe regarding man’s relationship to sublime scenic beauty (much as the Augustan poets and essayists ushered in the picturesque landscape in England during the same period).
Until the 18th century, landscapes in art were more often used as backgrounds for religious, mythological, or historical scenes. In an early section of the show, though, the curator, Christian Rümelin, has assembled some exquisite 17th-century examples from local museums and private collections of drawings and prints of pastoral scenes by Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Watteau, and Rembrandt. In particular, Lorrain’s 1650 drawing in brown ink of a mountainous view beyond Lake Avernus, near Naples, is a precursor of what was to come.
The bulk of the exhibition—which displays some 320 drawings, books, and, especially, prints (which proliferated in the 18th century)—highlights scenic and gardenesque views from throughout Europe in Rousseau’s time. The sights are such as the writer himself would have seen—though his journeys were frequently made out of political necessity. In his catalogue essay, Rümelin suggests that while drawings and paintings mostly retained their national ambience, prints were more homogeneous in order to appeal to a vast clientele. He makes this point engagingly by hanging Swiss prints directly across from, say, English or Italian ones to make comparisons.
While views of Switzerland’s dramatic mountainous topography dominate the display, they never feel distant; the spectator, like the artist, is either at the edge of the scene or becomes one of the figures who usually people the foreground on a kind of terrace or plateau overlooking the snow-covered peaks, forests, waterfalls, and gushing rivers. Like Saint-Preux, “[forgetful] of one’s self and of everything in the world,” the viewer easily feels engulfed, if not transported, by the majesty of these scenes.
By dividing the works into categories—“In Nature’s Garden,” “Methods and Fragments,” “Ethers and Atmospheres,” “On the Water,” and “Sublime Summits”—the exhibit’s organizers call attention to those elements that compose what would become known as the sensitive or emotional landscape that carried forth into the Romanticism of the 19th century. Watercolor views of Vevey—across Lake Geneva from the Alps—by the Swiss artist Johann Ludwig Aberli capture the sense of human settlement in juxtaposition with the grandeur of nature; Thomas Gainsborough’s intimate ink and gouache drawing of figures resting under sketchy trees beside their horses and cart also hints at mountainous valleys beyond.
Trees as studies in themselves figure prominently throughout, bringing the scale of the exhibition to a more intimate level—from Rembrandt’s graceful etching of three trees (1643) to Carl Wilhelm Kolbe’s dark etchings of densely leafed oaks (1802-04). One whole gallery wall is devoted to John Robert Cozens’s remarkable series of 13 trees titled Delineations of the General Character, Ramifications and Foliage of Forest Trees (1789). Son of the British landscape designer and theorist Alexander Cozens, he created subtle aquatints portraying weeping willows, poplars, pines, and elms animated by winds, with scudding clouds above.