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Joshua Shaw

Joshua Shaw was born in Bellingborough, Lincolnshire, in northeast England. Apprenticed in his youth to a sign and house painter, he was primarily self-taught as an artist. During his residence in Bath from 1805 to 1812 and later in London, he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and the British Institution. In 1817, Shaw immigrated to Philadelphia. A key figure in the development of landscape painting in America, he actively participated in the artistic life of his adopted city. Landscape with Cattle, among the first canvases Shaw executed after his arrival, is a prime example of his mature style.

Like many of the compositions Shaw created in America, Landscape with cattle is a remembrance of rural England that speaks of the healthful pleasures of country living far removed from urban congestion. With its meandering river and rolling countryside sprinkled with houses, this particular view projects a sense of man's harmony with a world basically untouched by industrialization. Its glorification of a pastoral existence would have been particularly appealing to a Jeffersonian audience. The setting, while not topographically accurate, is the Avon Valley not far from the fashionable city of Bath. It was an area admired for its natural beauty. There is an almost identical composition of slightly larger size, untitled (n.d., private collection, Louisville, Kentucky), and a related but smaller view of the same site, Avon Valley Near Bath (c. 1815, Lyman Allyn Museum, New London, Conn.); the elimination of cattle from the foreground as well as the addition of shipping and more buildings increase this work's topographical flavor. Perhaps Landscape with Cattle is a simplification of the Lyman Allyn painting, filtered through the eyes of a nostalgic expatriate. Certainly the Butler Institute painting seems less a portrait of a specific place than a landscape of mood, a poetic expression of a particular attitude toward nature. Shaw's compositions owe a debt to those of the seventeenth-century Franco-Italian painter, Claude Lorraine, and to his British followers, especially Richard Wilson. While their influence is clearly evident in Landscape with Cattle and other works by the artist, the overall composition as well as the landscape elements are part of the vocabulary of the picturesque, one of the leading aesthetic concepts of the day. Such works also have artistic affinities with paintings by Shaw's older contemporaries — Julius Caesar Ibbetson, Philip James de Loutherbourg, George Barret — whose numerous, seemingly topographical views of mountainous landscapes, often populated with cattle, bear a close resemblance to his conceptions. As exhibitors at the Royal Academy, they would have been known to Shaw. Certainly the atmospheric clarity, achieved through subtle gradations of pink and blue tones, touched with yellow, recall not only the effects achieved by these artists but also those developed by seventeenth-century Dutch masters such as Nicolaes Berchem, whose paintings Shaw is known to have copied.

Although Shaw drew on his American experience for inspiration, especially in his depictions of Native Americans in historical settings, he nevertheless continued to paint British landscapes virtually until the end of his life, often including picturesque remnants of castles as well as peasants in what were essentially imaginary compositions. Despite the pronounced British flavor of paintings such as Landscape with Cattle, Shaw remains a critical figure in the development of American landscape painting. As an artist born and trained in England, who revisited his native country on at least one occasion, he was in touch with current artistic developments and aesthetic theories. Through him, the American public as well as his colleagues came to know the work and techniques of some of Britain's leading artists.


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