Alexander Cozens

(1717—1786) landscape painter

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(b Russia, ?1717; d London, 23 Apr. 1786).

English landscape draughtsman. Cozens was one of the first major British artists to work exclusively as a landscapist and he helped to bring intellectual respectability to his speciality by stressing its poetic and imaginative qualities rather than its topographical function. He was born in Russia, the son of a shipbuilder employed by Peter the Great (there is no truth in the legend that Peter was his real father). Although he was educated in England, he later returned to Russia and did not settle in Britain until he was about 30 (following a period of about two years in Italy, during which he studied in Rome with Joseph Vernet). For much of his career he worked as a fashionable teacher, and he published several treatises. The most famous of these is A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1786), in which he explains his method of ‘blot drawing’—using accidental marks on the drawing paper to stimulate the imagination by suggesting landscape forms that could be developed into a finished work (see automatism). Cozens mentions that ‘something of the same kind had been mentioned by Leonardo da Vinci, in his Treatise on Painting’ and that reading the passage in question ‘tended to confirm my own opinion’. He worked almost exclusively in monochrome, and both his ‘blot drawings’ and his more formal compositions use intense lights and darks with masterly effect to suggest the power and mystery of nature.

His son, JohnRobertCozens (b ?London, ?1751/2; d London, c.14 Dec. 1797), was the outstanding landscape watercolourist of his generation. Much of his work derived from two Continental journeys, in 1776–9 and 1782–3, during which he visited Italy and Switzerland. On the first he was draughtsman to Richard Payne Knight, and on the second he was part of the entourage of William Beckford (a former pupil of his father). Throughout his life he was subject to fits of severe depression and in 1794 he became insane, thereafter being cared for by Dr Monro. His work was more naturalistic than his father's, but nevertheless was more concerned with evocation of mood (typically one of poetic melancholy) than with topographical accuracy. Unlike his father, he does not seem ever to have worked wholly from imagination, but he often transposed landscape features to obtain a more pleasing composition. His work was admired and copied by Constable (who called him ‘the greatest genius that ever touched landscape’), Girtin, and Turner.

Subjects: Art.

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