Initially drawn in by Roberts's strong diagonals, one responds to these pleasing vistas on a purely formal level: satisfying, balanced compositions of recessed perspective and earthy hues. Conventions of the English picturesque ("that which would look good in a picture") and the seventeenth-century Arcadian landscape tradition inform Roberts's removed, artfully arranged style, creating a palatable theater of the unfamiliar.
Roberts's six-volume set of Near East prints was a tremendous success, no doubt because it evocatively confirmed Romantic expectations of the region. Yet some have critiqued his ambitious project as mere topographic reportage. Clearly Roberts wasn't interested in competing with J. M. W. Turner and his ilk to capture the feeling of the Romantic sublime in nature; there's nothing melancholy or especially meditative about Roberts's ruins. His compelling lithographic legacy falls somewhere in the middle. Conservative? Sure. But that's part of its charm.
A Victorian's Passion: David Roberts, 1796-1864 is on view at the Kelsey through December 15 Rieke
[Originally published in November, 2002.]
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