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Landscape Studies: Exploring Visual Representations of Nature

Anna Ottani Cavina, Fondazione Federico Zeri, Università di Bologna
Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professor, spring 2014


George Augustus Wallis, “Le bouquet des peintres” (In the Park of the Villa Montalto Negroni, Rome), c. 1794 – 1806. Image © Galerie Eric Coatalem, Paris

My current undertaking is a book that explores landscape painting in Italy at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. It focuses on turning points at which the genre of landscape played a leading role, revealing broader implications for the direction of contemporary painting. As curator of a series of exhibitions on this topic (1993, 2001, 2003, and 2009) and author of a comprehensive three-volume examination of landscape painting in Italy (Storia del paesaggio in Italia, 2003–2005), I have sought to shed new light on this often-overlooked practice at a time when landscape made the transition from a background feature in large scenes to a principal object of artistic experimentation. My previous studies have enabled me to construct a narrative for the evolution of the genre over the course of two centuries.

Thanks to my residence at CASVA, I have had the opportunity to examine the mythologizing of the Italian landscape by the French and northern European artists who painted it and the revelatory or cathartic potential that they identified in the Roman countryside. To Thomas Jones, Italy was “Magic Land,” a regenerative place where light, nature, and antiquity came together to refresh artistic imagination. For Jacques-Louis David and others, it was a revelation.

Painting en plein air is one of the most vivid and concrete manifestations of the transformative power of the Italian landscape for the work of French, German, Swiss, Swedish, Danish, and English artists. The painters who breathed life into the depiction of independent landscapes rode the wave of a cultural revolution, animated by new ideas about nature from the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Joseph Schelling, and the Naturphilosophen. Landscape oil sketches on paper emerged at the forefront of experiments that sought to define a new praxis. During my residency at CASVA, I explored this pivotal chapter in the history of landscape, a task that would have been impossible without the generous collaboration of colleagues in the departments of French and European paintings and prints and drawings as well as the conservation division of the National Gallery of Art, and one that was enhanced by lively discussions with my fellow scholars at CASVA.

The Edmond J. Safra Colloquy “Stepping Outside the Artist’s Studio: Landscape and the Oil Sketch, c. 1780–1830” focused on the extraordinarily rich but understudied collection of landscape oil sketches in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, the first of its kind in the United States. New technical examinations of individual works undertaken by conservator Ann Hoenigswald revealed the diverse approaches of individual artists who were working under pressure to capture the fleeting effects of sunlight and sunset. Curators Mary Morton (French paintings) and Margaret Morgan Grasselli (old master drawings) generously shared their expertise and offered our group of emerging art historians unprecedented access to the collections in their care. Together, we tested new hypotheses and reflected on the many material and compositional breakthroughs pioneered in landscape oil sketches by painters including Thomas Jones, John Robert Cozens, Giovan Battista Lusieri, Pierre-HenrI de Valenciennes, Jacques-Louis David, André Giroux, Simon Denis, Johann Jakob Faber, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, and others. All of the participants offered new and illuminating perspectives, not only on the objects but also on the textual sources addressed in our roundtable discussions, including Élémens de perspective pratique, à l’usage des artistes by Pierre Henri de Valenciennes (Paris, 1800).

Conversations during the Safra Colloquy were enriched by a study day organized by David Freedberg and Jennifer Tonkovich at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York. The panel brought together art historians, curators, and conservators to address the role of drawing in the creation of oil sketches. The fortuitous timing of this event and the extraordinary expertise of its participants stimulated further questions and prompted new observations that contributed to the shape of the colloquy and to my own research in Washington. At CASVA, enriched by unique access to the National Gallery of Art library, I was perfectly positioned to explore both the practical and the conceptual aspects of my research, to engage profitably with scholars whose expertise spans many fields of art history, and to complete the central chapters of my book.