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Alexander Cozens, 1717–1786
Fantastic Landscape
1780 to 1785
Materials & Techniques:
Gray wash, black wash, graphite and buff ground on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper, mounted on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper
Mount: 15 3/4 x 20 3/4 inches (40 x 52.7 cm), Sheet: 12 1/4 x 17 3/8 inches (31.1 x 44.1 cm)

Inscribed on back on mount in graphite upper center: (circled) "N"; in graphite center: "32"

Signed on mount in pen and gray ink lower left: "Alexr. Cozens."; in graphite lower right: "ALEXANDER COZENS: LANDSCAPE"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
hills | landscape | rocks (landforms)
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IIIF Manifest:

Alexander Cozens discouraged his students from copying nature directly, urging them to create ideal landscapes from the imagination instead. To do this he developed a notorious drawing system that consisted of making random marks, or “blots,” on a sheet of paper until a landscape gradually began to take shape. This view of an imaginary island was almost certainly worked up from a blot drawing. The monochrome palette and indistinct forms required the viewer to take an active part in imaginatively completing the landscape, something Cozens thought was a “singular advantage” of his method.

Gallery label for Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17)
The other watercolor by Cozens represented here, Fantastic Landscape, illustrates the blot method in action. The drawing is almost entirely composed of short, sometimes feathery brushstrokes, but by allowing them to bleed into one another Cozens created an indistinct landscape, as if the island were seen through haze. It is likely that this view of an imagi nary island was first developed in blot sketches and then gradually worked up into a finished composition.
Although there are a few traces of human habitation on the island's shoreline, Cozens's monochrome palette and indefinite style allow the viewer considerable freedom when interpreting the island. For example, the hatched strokes can be read either as tracks of rich forest or as meager scrub on a rocky and desolate outcrop. Cozens thought this " singular advantage" of his method because the experience of viewing a watercolor became one of real intellectual engagement." He promoted watercolor blotting over simple pencil sketching by arguing that "to sketch is to delineate ideas; blotting suggests them." Since the resulting blots are inherently ambiguous, "one artificial blot will suggest different ideas to different persons." But this indistinct style also resonates with Burke's influential ideas on the nature of the sublime in painting. In his Philosophical Enquiry, he argued that
in painting a judicious obscurity in some things contributes to the effect of the picture; because the images in painting are exactly similar to those in nature; and in nature dark, confused, uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form grander passions than those have which are more clear and determinate.
By painting in this way, Cozens was aspiring to create genuinely sublime objects, although he had been using an indeterminate style long before Burke wrote his Philosophical Enquiry; no doubt he noted Burke's argument as a gratifying confirmation of his own intuition. Nevertheless, the demands Cozens placed upon viewers meant that his art was primarily aimed at a narrow group of learned spectators who enjoyed an active role in completing one of his images with the aid of imagination. Whether his preference for subjective response on the part of the viewer contradicted his plan to articulate a universal language of landscape in The Various Species is a moot point.
Cozens stands at the beginning of the process that transformed the status of watercolor painting and helped watercolor artists be perceived as painters rather than mere draftsmen. He even went so far as to argue that proficiency in watercolor should be part of the repertoire of the academic history painter. Since an idea in the artist's mind has to be reproduced quickly, he insisted, the force of the initial inspiration would either be diminished or lost entirely by slow and laborious execution. The speed with which watercolor could be painted allowed for a close relationship between the mind and the hand, whereas the protracted task of mixing oils would only stifle invention. It was through his emphasis on the intellectual component of painting, especially the painting of landscape, that he had a long-term influence on British painting. For Constable and J. M. W. Turner (cat. nos. 43-49), Cozens's insight that landscape com positions could carry serious moral messages was to assume central significance in their art.

Matthew Hargraves

Hargraves, Matthew, and Scott Wilcox. Great British Watercolors: from the Paul Mellon collection. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 2007, p. 16, no. 3

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (The State Hermitage Museum, 2007-10-23 - 2008-01-13) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2007-07-11 - 2007-09-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

The Art of Alexander and John Robert Cozens (Yale Center for British Art, 1980-09-17 - 1980-11-16) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Art : The Definitive Visual History, DK Publishing, New York, 2018, p. 276, NX440 .A785 2018 Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Andrew Wilton, The Art of Alexander and John Robert Cozens, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1980, pp. 30-1, no. 25, pl. 11, NJ18 C83 W55 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

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