A gold and soft orange sunset is reflected in the silvery water below. As two men fish from the bank of the river, other figures can just be made out beyond them, apparently herding cattle. This expertly painted, undated landscape was made by John Linnell. Although best-known for landscape paintings, Linnell was unable to devote himself to the genre entirely until the 1840s. For financial reasons he concentrated on portraiture instead, explaining in his unfinished autobiography: ‘portraits I painted to live, but I lived to paint poetical landscape.’
When Linnell was about 14, landscape painter and diarist Joseph Farington (1747-1821) recorded in his diary that small-scale oil studies by the boy were attracting the attention of established artists, including David Wilkie and Benjamin Haydon. Linnell later read the writings of William Paley, which encouraged him to view the study of landscape as a response to the work of God. Close friend William Blake shared this view of an association between landscape painting and religious values, and both artists saw the natural world as a reflection of their religious beliefs.
John Linnell studied at the Royal Academy Schools under the patronage of the artist Benjamin West and was a pupil of John Varley. He is best known for his rural landscapes but turned his attention to portraiture after his marriage in 1817. He was a friend and patron of William Blake and father-in-law to Samuel Palmer. Linnell’s eccentricities and radical political and religious views led to a number of rifts with both individual artists, including Palmer and John Constable, and the artistic establishment, perhaps explaining his failure to be elected as a Royal Academician.
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