Falaise, Normandy: entrance to the city
Falaise, Normandy: entrance to the city

JOHN SELL COTMAN (1782-1842)

Falaise, Normandy: entrance to the city

1823 France

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This picture has its origins in Cotman's visit to Falaise in August 1820; at this time he was making sketches for the volume of etchings entitled Architectural Antiquities of Normandy (1822). On his previous visit to the city in early September 1818 he was evidently afflicted with the melancholia which was to beset him increasingly in his later years, but for a period during his tour of 1820 - which he undertook largely for the sake of his health - he found himself responding to Normandy with increasing enthusiasm: 'the more I see of it and of the people, the more I like both'. Writing to Dawson Turner on 14 August 1820, he observed that, in contrast with his first experience of Falaise in wet and grimy conditions, he now found the place 'grey-green with all the vigour of Spring[,] and the sparkling of the numerous groups of fine-coloured figures gave a life that made you feel joyous in the midst of decaying grandeur and sublimity'.

In the same letter he records that he took 'a general view of the town as you enter from Caen'. This formed the basis of several watercolours, including the present picture; a version (6 x 9 ½ ins) in Leeds City Art Gallery; and a wider view (13 ¼ x 18 ½ ins), dated 1829, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The present picture falls within Cotman's 'middle period'. The watercolours of his early career, best represented by the 'Greta' drawings of 1805, are characterised by an almost abstract quality of flat patterning and simple, harmonious design; in his later years, from c.1830, he embarked on imaginative landscapes, often using rich and semi-opaque colours. In the intervening period he developed a more muted palette, lending a particular distinction to his French scenes: ‘The series of elaborately finished views in Normandy that he executed in the 1820s mark perhaps the high point of his development: in them topography is transmuted into the grandest of abstract designs, which nevertheless by some extraordinary creative power preserve the warmth and humanity that makes topography live' (Andrew Wilton, 'The Great Age of British Watercolours 1750-1880', Royal Academy, 1993, 178).
Probably the artist's sale; Christie's 1 May 1824 (99), bt. Colnaghi; Sir Anthony Dewey, Bt., 1974; Leger Galleries; Private collection, Canada
Exhibited: probably Norwich Society of Artists, 1823, no.153; to be included in the exhibition ‘Cotman in Normandy’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Oct. 2012 - Jan. 2013
Height 10.75 inch (27.30 cm)
Width 15.00 inch (38.10 cm)
Stock Code
Pencil and watercolour, with scratching-out
Signed and dated lower right ‘J.S. Cotman / 1823’
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