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    True to Nature:

    Open-Air Painting in Europe 1780–1870

    A deep attachment to nature took root in European art of the late eighteenth century. Nurtured by philosophical writings, scientific inquiry, and poetic sentiment, the quest for naturalism led artists to embrace open-air painting decades before the impressionists famously took their canvases outdoors. Aspiring painters were taught that truthful rendering of nature could be learned only from direct observation — not in the studio from a master or from a manual. Venturing outside with portable paint kits, they trained their eyes and hands to transcribe in quick oil sketches the ephemeral effects of light and atmosphere, the fleeting shape of a cloud, the textured bark of a tree, or the rush of a waterfall. Rapidness was key, according to Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, the most influential exponent of the practice: shifting conditions meant an oil sketch would no longer be true to nature if more than two hours were spent working on it. Capturing the essence of a motif was more important than recording all the finicky details.

    Rome was the center of the oil-sketch tradition. Filled with monuments, steeped in classical associations, and graced with picturesque environs animated by a steady, exquisite light, the city beckoned bands of young artists from France, Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain, and elsewhere to learn from its splendor. Returning home, they continued painting outdoors, spreading the practice among those who never made an Italian journey.

    Painted freely and thinly on sheets of paper and small cuts of canvas or board, open-air oil sketches were exercises in skill intended neither for sale nor for exhibition. Although some were later worked up in the studio, most remained out of public view, consulted as private artistic resources for the larger polished landscapes on which painters staked their reputations. Yet to modern eyes the freshness and immediacy of these glimpses of nature are what make them so appealing. This exhibition brings together some one hundred outdoor oil sketches by artists across a spectrum of fame, from Camille Corot and John Constable to painters largely forgotten or unknown. Their quick yet luminous responses to nature are arranged thematically — from views of Rome and southern Italy to studies of trees and clouds — to reflect the way artists themselves organized these painted observations made “in the field.”

    The artist brings back the result of his observations, and the studies that he has made in the countryside . . .

    In looking at his work, he remembers perfectly the sites that he has copied.

    All the phenomena that he has admired retrace themselves in his memory.

    —Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, 1799

    Rome and the Campagna

    From a high vantage point, we look across a snow-covered expanse at the long side of a pale, parchment-colored building with a town beyond in this horizontal landscape view. The scene is painted loosely and mostly in tones of icy blue, cream white, golden tan, and brown. Closest to us but far below, a hedge of moss-green treetops lines the sun-drenched, ivory-white field. The field slopes up to our left and a path, between two rows of cinnamon-brown trees, leads from the bottom center of the painting to the building. Four stories of mostly rectangular windows pierce the wall of the building in front of us. Shadows on the snow-covered roof are painted with thick strokes of steel blue. On the other side of the building, a second long roofline runs parallel to the first. The short side of the building, to our right, has a tower at each corner. A fawn-brown obelisk, which is a tapering, pointed column, is topped with a cross and stands in front of the building façade. Stacked and overlapping rooflines, painted broadly in azure blue and silvery gray, fade toward the distant horizon, which comes halfway up the canvas. A blanket of white clouds with arctic-blue bottoms sweep across the sky, revealing only a few small patches of vivid blue sky beyond.

    André Giroux, Santa Trinità dei Monti in the Snow, 1825/1830, oil on paper on canvas, Chester Dale Fund, 1997.65.1

    In Rome, marvelous views greeted artists at every turn. Set against the backdrop of the Sabine Hills, church towers rose up next to ancient ruins — all bathed in the magical light of Italy. Such was the city’s lure that some northern visitors stayed for years or never returned home. Artists built vibrant expatriate communities that welcomed new arrivals and introduced them to the best sites and methods for outdoor painting.

    This horizontal landscape painting shows a cluster of tan and rust-brown buildings set on a tiny island at the center of a wide brownish-gray river. We look across the surface of the smooth, glassy river, which spans the width of the composition. Most of the buildings on the island are about the same height, perhaps three or four stories high, except for a bell tower that rises a story above the rest, to our right of center. Sage-green dabs along the ground on the island suggest vegetation. Two arched stone bridges span the river on either side of the island to connect to the city beyond. The color palette is made up entirely of shades of tan, cream white, and brown, except for the blue sky with a band of white puffy clouds above.

    Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Island and Bridge of San Bartolomeo, Rome, 1825/1828, oil on paper on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2001.23.1

    In the surrounding countryside, known as the campagna, these artists stayed at the same inns and hostelries and, though eager to claim their own remote spots, often ended up easel to easel at the same romantic prospects. Crossed by the Tiber and Aniene Rivers and the highways radiating from ancient Rome, the campagna was dotted with majestic ruins, tombs, and huge arching aqueducts, while flocks of sheep, herds of buffalo, and bandits also roamed its fields and hills. Painters saw in the region a timeless, elegiac beauty arising from its striking mixture of nature, light, and classical antiquity.

    The ruins of a crenellated, round, stone tower sitting on gently sloping hills are silhouetted against a pale peach-colored sky in this horizontal landscape painting. Two deep green cypress trees lean against the mottled golden brown and rust-colored walls of the tower. To our left of the tower and slightly overlapping it, a high, charcoal-gray wall is also crenelated and in ruins. The land drops gently to the lower right corner. The low grasses in the field are straw and mustard yellow, with occasional patches of moss green. A person, loosely painted, stands on a low rise facing away from us, holding a tall staff, close to the tower. Several touches of tawny brown beyond suggest sheep grazing in the meadow. Silver, rose-pink, and cream-white clouds sweep across the sky high above the ruins. The scene is loosely painted with visible brushstrokes, especially in the hills and tower.

    Léon-François-Antoine Fleury, The Tomb of Caecilia Metella, c. 1830, oil on canvas, Gift of Frank Anderson Trapp, 2004.166.16

    The South of Italy:
    Naples, Capri, and Volcanoes

    Image of the painting Eruption of Vesuvius, 1872, oil on wood panel,

    Giuseppe de Nittis, Eruption of Vesuvius, 1872, oil on wood panel, Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris

    Artists who headed south toward Naples and beyond encountered a landscape that married the allure of classical antiquity with the drama of volcanic activity. Few subjects rivaled the awe-inspiring sight of a volcano erupting, deemed by one painter to be “the most terrible and the most magnificent spectacle” offered by nature. Climbing to the rim to sketch was a way for artists to prove their mettle. In southern Italy they had their pick, including Mount Vesuvius near Naples and the Sicilian volcanoes Mount Etna and Mount Stromboli. Vesuvius, destroyer of ancient Pompeii, most ignited the artistic imagination. Easily accessible, it spewed forth a fairly regular succession of minor rumblings and emissions, punctuated by vigorous eruptions of choking dust-clouds and red-hot lava. Several powerful explosions in  the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sent the surrounding population fleeing the flames and smoke — and artists toward them to sketch the pyrotechnic glory.

    Image of the painting View of Faraglioni near Capri, oil on wood panel

    August Kopisch, View of Faraglioni near Capri, oil on wood panel, Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris

    Almost as thrilling as an erupting volcano was the perilous journey to Capri in the Gulf of Naples. Until the early nineteenth century, many travelers avoided the island, deterred by the dangers of its rocky coastline. But tales of Capri’s captivating beauty, embodied in dazzling oil sketches made by the few artists who braved the conditions, convinced others to venture there. Those who did delighted in the island’s craggy limestone cliffs and white buildings set against an azure sky, as well as its famed faraglioni, majestic rock formations jutting from the inky-blue sea.

    Simon Denis, View near Naples, c. 1806, oil on paper on canvas, Chester Dale Fund, 1998.21.1

    Water: Coasts and Cascades

    Image of the painting A Study of Waves Breaking against Rocks at Sunset

    Baron François Gérard, A Study of Waves Breaking against Rocks at Sunset, oil on millboard, Private Collection, London

    In foggy weather that sailors call sea mist, the water is gray and the color of the atmosphere, above all when it is tranquil; but if the sea is rough, it takes on different tones: blackish green, greenish blue, darkened violet mixed with the foamy white of the cresting waves that grow and roll and break into each other.

    —Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, 1799

    The confluence of water and land beckoned artists to picturesque coastlines from Italy and France to Denmark and Germany. Painters could try their skill at depicting changing weather conditions, liquid reflections of sky and earth, pale sandy beaches, frantic waves, and rocky cliffs eroded by sea and wind. Inland, lakes and waterfalls served a similar purpose.

    Image of the painting Waterfall in the River Traun, Bavaria, 1826

    Christian Ernst, Bernhard Morgenstern, Waterfall in the River Traun, Bavaria, 1826, oil on paper, Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris

    Water in motion is one of the most demanding motifs to paint. Flowing in cascades or surging in the sea, it never holds its shape, all the while changing color as it shifts from frothy whites to transparency to reflecting the palette of its surroundings. Rushing water moves faster than any brush, yet the quickness of oil sketching often matched the subject. In many sketches, loose brush marks fly and descend and collide to suggest a rapid chute of water and foamy waves crashing violently against rocks.

    Fed by two waterfalls, an olive-green stream with foamy whitewater spills toward us, cascading over rocks and boulders in this vertical painting. Sunlight cuts across the sheer, rust and caramel-brown cliffs that fill the composition beyond the waterfalls, throwing the area closest to us in shadow. The stream is fed by a tall, thin waterfall to our left and a wider, lower waterfall to our right. One dark rock pokes out of the pool at the foot of the waterfalls. Tumbling forward over a broad, horizontal ledge about a third of the way up from the bottom, the stream breaks over massive rocks into fan-shaped cascades. The rushing white water is painted with choppy brushstrokes. Dark green shrubs are tucked into the corners and crevices of the cliffs and rocks.

    Jean Joseph Xavier Bidauld, View of the Waterfalls at Tivoli, 1788, oil on paper on canvas, Gift of Fern and George Wachter, 2005.140.1

    Rocks, Grottoes, Caves

    Image of the painting Interior of a Cave

    Jean-Baptiste Adolphe Gibert, Interior of a Cave, oil on paper, Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris

    The variety of shapes, textures, and colors of the earth’s crust appealed to the sculptural and painterly sensibilities of land- scape artists working in the open air. Like architectural ruins, geological formations also prompted painters to contemplate time. Advances in earth sciences dwarfed a sense of human history by revealing the effect of monumental forces, from geothermal activity to water and wind erosion, in shaping cliffs, outcrops, and caves over millennia. Eroded rocks and weathered outcroppings captured attention in northern landscapes, while in Italy artists were particularly taken by the caves and grottoes that riddled the volcanic terrain. Their grandeur and mystery matched that of the ancient Etruscan and Roman architectural ruins that also defined this land.

    Image of the painting Limestone Rocks, Sorrento, 1858, oil on paper

    Carl Wilhelm Götzloff , Limestone Rocks, Sorrento, 1858, oil on paper, mounted on cardboard, Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris


    Image of the painting Tree Crowns in a Forest (Ariccia?), c. 1832

    Fritz Petzholdt, Tree Crowns in a Forest (Ariccia?), c. 1832, oil on paper, Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris, Gift of John Schlichte Bergen and Alexandra van Nierop, Amsterdam

    Considered the greatest ornament and noblest element of the landscape, the tree was also acknowledged as a fiercely complicated motif to paint. The diversity of arboreal size, shape, and color meant that no single ideal existed for artists to emulate. In an era that saw the introduction of a modern botanical classification system and the emergence of forest management as a profession, artists found themselves alongside scientists wandering in the woods. Both strove to understand these natural treasures through firsthand observation and sketching. In their oil studies, however, artists generally favored expressing the character of a species by conveying distinctive features in just a few lines or strokes. “Sufficient resemblance” was the goal, according to the writer of a treatise on depicting trees. “It is not necessary to become a perfect Botanist to delineate a leaf.”

    André Giroux, Forest Interior with a Waterfall, Papigno, 1825/1830, oil on paper, Gift of Mrs. John Jay Ide in memory of Mr. and Mrs. William Henry Donner, 1994.52.4

    Skies and Atmospheric Effects

    This horizontal painting is filled with gray and white clouds against a blue sky. Wisps of white clouds are interspersed among banks of darker gray clouds against a pale blue sky in the top half of the painting. A tower of gray clouds to the left obscure a deep red circle, which only becomes evident upon careful inspection. Rays of pale shell pink streak down from the clouds along the bottom edge of the painting.

    John Constable, Cloud Study: Stormy Sunset, 1821-1822, oil on paper on canvas, Gift of Louise Mellon in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1998.20.1

    Stormy or serene, overcast or brilliant, looming over a low horizon or shimmering through foliage, the sky offered itself as an endlessly variable and wondrous element of any landscape. Painting manuals urged artists to observe atmospheric effects at different times of day, in different seasons, and under different conditions. The weather transformed not only the appearance of the landscape but also that of the rooftops and buildings that caught the eye of the artist. The burgeoning field of meteorology helped drive the interest; notes on the weather dominate the diaries and correspondence of many artists of the era. The formation of clouds, cotton-like or wispy, were of particular concern. The quality of light and range of colors in the sky at sunrise and sunset could be spectacular, but even mastering the art of gradations of gray was a useful skill, especially for artists working in the north. Landscapes sketched in the absence of the sun could be enchanting, where forms begin to lose their contours in the mist or descending darkness.


    Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Study of Clouds over the Roman Campagna, c. 1782/1785, oil on paper on cardboard, Given in honor of Gaillard F. Ravenel II by his friends, 1997.23.1

    The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.