Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes still awaits a rigorously documented biography, especially for his early career and travels, before he settled into official artistic life in Paris in 1787. Born in Toulouse in 1750, he trained at the local art academy under the history painter Jean Baptiste Despax (1709-1773) and the miniaturist Guillaume Gabriel Bouton. According to Robert Mesuret, he was sponsored by a member of the Parlement of Toulon, Mathias du Bourg, who may have underwritten a first trip to Rome in 1769. In the early 1770s (and by 1773, on the evidence of dated drawings made in the Paris area), Valenciennes was in Paris, where he entered the studio of the history painter Gabriel François Doyen (1726-1806) in 1773. He began a four-year visit to Italy in 1777, documented by drawings made on the outward journey. While in Paris for a brief stay in 1781-1782, Valenciennes wrote that he met the landscape and marine painter Claude Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), who gave him valuable instruction in the science of perspective; however, it is perhaps more likely that such lessons would have been imparted during Valenciennes' student days in the early 1770s. The present writer and others have suggested that during the 1781-1782 encounter, Vernet introduced Valenciennes to the practice of painting landscape oil studies in the open air. Certainly, the older painter's precocious naturalism and his contemporary reputation as a plein-air painter make him an important predecessor for Valenciennes' own practice and his theories of landscape painting. It is assumed--although not proven--that Valenciennes' series of open-air landscape studies in oil, made in and around Rome, date to his return to Italy for another three or four years, from 1782 to 1785 or 1786. Most of the surviving oil studies are now in the Musée du Louvre.
Through both his artistic practice and his theoretical writing Valenciennes holds a position of considerable importance in the history of landscape painting of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. In 1800 he published the influential treatise on landscape painting, Elémens de perspective practique, à l'usage des artistes, suivis de Réflexions et conseils à un élève sur la peinture, et particulièrement sur le genre du paysage, which was still recommended by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) in the 1880s. Much of this book is devoted to the detailed study of perspective. But Valenciennes was perhaps more influential for his advocacy of an almost systematic program of study by painting oil sketches from nature out-of-doors, which he believed was a better way for the young artist to understand nature's myriad appearances and to train the hand and eye in capturing them in paint. This theory was based on Valenciennes' own experience of painting oil studies in the open air during his last Italian sojourn between 1782 and 1785. He passed on the practice of painting open-air landscape studies in oil to his pupils, including Achille Etna Michallon (1796-1822) and Jean Joseph Xavier Bidauld (1758-1846). This working method became a cornerstone of landscape painting in the nineteenth century, from Camille Corot (1796-1875), who studied with his precocious contemporary Michallon, to Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), who was mentored in plein-air painting by Pissarro.
In 1787 Valenciennes was elected to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in Paris. His reception piece was Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (Toulouse, Musée des Augustins). This painting would define the art of the historical landscape for a century, echoing the ideal landscapes of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (1604/1605-1682) and raising the academic status of landscape painting from the lowly representation of brute nature to an art form that could embody noble ideas. The subject also hints at Valenciennes' admiration for the great geometer Archimedes, whose calculations form the basis of scientific perspective. Valenciennes rapidly rose in the academic hierarchy, becoming professor of perspective at the Académie and earning official lodgings in the Louvre. From this important position he had a decisive influence on the rise and development of landscape painting in early nineteenth-century France. He lived to see the establishment in 1816 of the Rome Prize for landscape painting, which marked the complete acceptance of landscape painting into the academic system. Later generations would react against the classicizing constraints of historical landscape and follow instead Valenciennes' other practices and precepts by studying nature at first hand.
[Philip Conisbee, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 409-410.]
Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: 409-410.