- Museum number
Moonlight, illustration to Ossian's poems; cross-like monument surmounted on hill surrounded by vaporous trails of cloud and bathed in eerie moonlight, full moon on horizon beyond. 1803
Graphite with grey wash
- Production date
Height: 212 millimetres
Width: 314 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- The inscription on the verso shows that Cotman executed this drawing at a meeting of the Sketching Society, on 23 March 1803, when he was presiding and set the subject. The Sketching Society was a small, informal grouping of artists whose stated purpose was to establish ‘a school of Historic Landscape, the subjects being designs from poetick passages’. Meetings were often sporadic, and the group was dissolved and re-formed a number of times, but it nevertheless included many of the leading watercolourists of the day and was an important influence on their careers. Cotman attended at least one meeting of the original Sketching Society founded by Girtin in 1799, known as ‘The Brothers' (see S.D. Kitson, ‘The Life of John Sell Cotman’, 1937, p.31-2). He is next documented as present at one of the group's meetings on 5 May 1802, and remained an active member throughout 1803.
The subject of the drawing is taken from Ossian’s poems. ‘The moon looks abroad from her cloud' is a quotation from the 3rd canto of the epic poem Temora, and describes the moment when the hero Comal is buried. Cotman's image is not illustrative, however, but strives to capture a mood of mystery and foreboding. The simple division of the composition into three planes, with the group of figures and central cross breaking through from one area into the next, shows Cotman using the essentially social gatherings of the society meetings as opportunities to explore important technical issues that would later bear fruit in his nature studies at Duncombe and on the river Greta.
L. Stainton, ‘British Landscape Watercolours, 1600-1860’, 1985, no. 115:
It was at meetings of the Society that Cotman seems to have evolved the pattern-making style on which his twentieth-century reputation has been chiefly based. In this ‘Ossianic Scene – Moonlight’, dated 1803, with its boldly silhouetted shapes in white and grey used equally to represent solid forms and wraiths of mist and cloud, the style is already adumbrated, if not fully developed; what is still lacking is the delicate geometry and the pure transparent colouring of Cotman’s Greta period.
The subject of the drawing, in contrast to its style, shows the characteristic features of late eighteenth-century Romanticism: the Ossianic theme is interpreted by the desolate, mountainous terrain, the primitive stones cross, the moonlight and mist and the ghostly figures inspired by the witches in Macbeth. It is possible to see parallels with Fuseli and Alexander Runciman who epitomised that movement in figure drawing, though the simplification of the forms and the frozen movement of the figures look forward to Cotman’s emerging landscape style.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1888 July, Norwich Art Circle, 9th Exhibition, 'Drawings by John Sell Cotman', no.122
1888 Nov, Burlington Fine Arts Club, no.89
1959 Jul-Sep, London (Council of Europe), 'The Romantic Movement', no.389
1974 Feb-Apr, Paris, Grand Palais, 'Ossian', no.1
1974 Hamburg, Kunsthalle 'Ossian' [cat not seen]
1982 Aug-Oct, London, V&A, 'Cotman', no. 13
1982 Nov-Dec, Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, 'Cotman', no. 13
1982-1983 Dec-Jan, Bristol AG, 'Cotman', no. 13
1985, BM, British Landscape Watercolours 1600-1860, no.115
1990 Aug-Nov, Berlin Nationalgalerie, 'Karl Blechen', no. 326
2002 Feb-May, BM, 'John Sell Cotman; The Poetry of Nature', no cat
2005 Mar-Apr, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, 'John Sell Cotman: The Reeve Collection', no.65
2005 May-Jul, Durham, Bowes Museum, 'Sense and Sensibility: Cotman Watercolours in Durham and Yorkshire'
2005 Aug-Oct, Leeds, Harewood House, 'Sense and Sensibility: Cotman Watercolours in Durham and Yorkshire'
- Associated titles
Associated Title: Temora
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number