Say “painting en plein air”—in the open air—and we envision the Impressionists, working away at easels set up outdoors, hastening to capture momentary effects of light. (Never mind that their canvases were often worked on in the studio as well.) The historically minded will cite the Barbizon painters, the Impressionists’ predecessors, who even earlier worked directly from the motif, in the picturesque landscape near the Forest of Fontainebleau. But almost everyone associates plein air painting with the advent of modernism, since for academically trained artists of the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, the figure, not the world of nature, was paramount. There were, of course, landscape and even still life artists during this period, but the most ambitious aimed at becoming history painters. They wished to present stories from antiquity, the Bible, mythology, or even the not-too-distant past, enacted by large-scale figures, filtered through a study of Greece and Rome and perhaps Raphael. Students at the Academies honed their skills by drawing from casts of classical sculptures and, when possible, actual classical sculptures, eventually moving up to living models, posed to look like classical sculptures, idealizing them in their drawings to approximate the canonically proportioned suavity of those statues. History painting ranked highest in the Academy’s hierarchy; landscape was second from the bottom—only still life was rated lower—since telling stories with figures was believed to involve intellect and invention, while working from the landscape was seen as merely imitating nature. Moreover, nature was irregular and mutable. Better to stay indoors and concentrate on the figure, correcting imperfections by studying perfections, as Raphael was supposed to have done when he combined the best attributes of many women to create an ideally beautiful Madonna.

History painting ranked highest in the Academy’s hierarchy; landscape was second from the bottom—only still life was rated lower.

Yet it turns out that things were not quite so simple. The conventional wisdom notwithstanding, working directly from nature was, in fact, of great significance to a wide range of painters. This engaging, less familiar side of the story is eloquently brought to life by “True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1870” at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.1 Jointly organized by Mary Morton, the curator and head of the department of French paintings at the National Gallery; Ger Luijten, Director, Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris; and Jane Munro, Keeper of paintings, drawings, and prints, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the show assembles about one hundred oil sketches—paintings on paper—of landscapes, townscapes, water, skies, and the occasional ruin, all made directly from nature, selected from four of the most important public and private collections of these works. Organized thematically and more or less chronologically, the exhibition reveals a way of working that proves to have been remarkably widespread among painters from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth century, but that has been studied comprehensively only since the late 1970s. Those of us with a taste for this sort of thing will recall some memorable exhibitions devoted to the subject in the 1990s, including “In the Light of Italy, Corot and Early Open-Air Painting,” and more recently the Metropolitan Museum’s 2013 installation of a munificent gift of plein air oil sketches from a private collector. “True to Nature” and its handsome, informative catalogue present us with superlative examples, a lot of surprises, new scholarship, and interesting revelations about technique and method. The show is a visual delight that also broadens our understanding of the trajectory of European art from the time of the French Revolution to the Franco-Prussian War.

Exhibition view of “True to Nature” at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Drawing the figure was the foundation of academic art education in the years examined by “True to Nature,” along with inventing complex storytelling images, but, we learn, even aspiring history painters were encouraged to work in the open air. In part, this was to discover settings for mythological or historical subjects that would be convincing, but, more generally and more importantly, working out of doors obliged young painters to deal with nuances and subtleties of light and color that could not be experienced in the studio or learned from manuals. An influential treatise on the education of an artist by the painter Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, published in 1799–1800, placed special emphasis on landscape, urging artists to paint from nature en plein air. Valenciennes provided a helpful list of stimulating subjects, advising the young painter to, among other things, observe pebbles under water, note the differences between stones polished by streams and those on dry land, and witness the eruption of a volcano—the last deemed “desirable at least once in his lifetime.” Painters followed Valenciennes’ advice. There were even tree painting competitions held by the Academies, with prizes awarded for accurately portraying particular species.

That ingenious folding paintbox/easel/stool/palette combinations were offered for sale in the nineteenth century attests to the increasing popularity of painting en plein air, but it hardly needs saying that all of this was regarded only as a means to an end. Works painted en plein air were understood as studies undertaken to educate the eye and furnish motifs, possibly for future use. They were studio aids, usually painted on flimsy surfaces, not considered as finished paintings or intended for exhibition. At most, they might be shown to fellow artists, in whose company they were often made. Sometimes they were mounted on canvas, to make them more durable. Other times they were eventually discarded.

The conventional wisdom notwithstanding, working directly from nature was, in fact, of great significance to a wide range of painters.

Painting out of doors meant working quickly—Valenciennes recommends that no more than two hours be spent on a landscape image, and no more than half an hour on a sunset or cloud effect, in order to remain faithful to changing qualities of light. Finished works made in the studio were expected to be meticulously detailed and sleek, with surfaces characterized as léché—licked—achieved over time with layering, glazing, and invisible brushstrokes. Painting in oil out of doors demanded an approach antithetical to the caution of the studio. Speed was of the essence. Means were limited, because of the difficulty of transporting materials. Colors were pared down to an essential few. Paper, rather than canvas, was the preferred medium, being lighter and more expendable. Because of the way paint moves on paper, it was possible to work rapidly and freely, hinting at things, rather than describing them carefully. Every touch of the brush had to be fully intended from the start; there was no time for hesitation, fussing, or readjustment. Yet the mobility of the subject matter made decisiveness difficult. Branches and foliage moved in the wind. Light shifted. In response, painters devised all kinds of “tricks” to achieve effects quickly and expediently: using fingers instead of brushes, incising with the end of brush, dragging a lightly loaded stiff brush to modulate tone and intensity as the paint went down, relying on a single inflected stroke rather than overpainting with different hues. And more. Close attention to the works in “True to Nature” allows us to see these useful shortcuts, which seem different in each sketch. Each painter seems to have independently invented his own repertory of time-saving applications and effects. Some pieces, it is believed, were worked on again in the studio, but even those are strikingly economical.

As the selection at the National Gallery makes clear, these small studies made rapidly, on the spot, are notable for an immediacy, freshness, and directness completely unlike the staid, carefully finished academic paintings of the time, whatever their subjects, intended for exhibition. That immediacy and freshness makes oil sketches painted out of doors immensely appealing to present-day eyes trained by the Impressionists and modernism in general to value works that reveal the history of their making—hence the growing interest in plein air paintings on paper in the twentieth century and hence much of the pleasure of “True to Nature.” There’s also the pleasure of the unexpected: terrific works by painters we’ve never heard of or whose names we’ve read but never registered, not only holding their own against intimate little paintings by their better-known colleagues, but also sometimes overshadowing them.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Island and the Bridge of San Bartolomeo, Rome, 1825–28, Oil on paper, mounted on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

We begin with “Rome and the Campagna,” a cross-section of the many international artists working in Rome, either on their own or as prizewinners based in the various national Academies—French, Dutch, Belgian, German, English, Swiss, and Scandinavian—all of them northerners enraptured by the light and enchanted by the ruined vestiges of antiquity. Some, we learn, never went home again. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s radiant The Island and the Bridge of San Bartolomeo, Rome (1825–28), with its geometric architecture and shimmering water, captures our attention first, but we soon discover, hanging side-by-side, a pair of views out the window of the Villa Medici, where the French Academy is located, both of the adjacent church of Santa Trinità dei Monti, at the top of the Spanish Steps. Louis Dupré gives us a sun-drenched building under an intensely blue sky, above the gardens of the villa, seen ca. 1817. André Giroux, working from the same vantage point in 1825–30, offers the church and gardens covered with snow—a rare occurrence in Rome—under churning clouds; thick, casual strokes of white paint conjure up accumulations of snow on roofs and treetops, while incised slashes suggest the buried garden beds, under a luminous blue atmosphere. In nearby works, views of the surrounding countryside, punctuated by four-square buildings, are testimony to the effect of seductive Italian light on artists from the gray North.

Some intrepid painters ventured further south, to Naples and even to Capri, which took special determination because of the difficulties of navigating its rocky coastline and tiny harbor protected by dangerous rocks. That the journey was worth the effort is attested to by two views of a white-columned, vine-covered pergola against rows of sun-soaked trees, painted about 1820 by the Dutch-born Naples resident Anton Sminck Pitloo. Further evidence is provided by an undated view of a potted oleander on a terrace, in blinding sunlight, by an anonymous French nineteenth-century painter. Elsewhere, muscular, energetic studies of waterfalls, rocks, cliffs, dense foliage, sunsets, and Vesuvius in eruption suggest that Valenciennes’ suggestions about seeking a great variety of subjects were being taken seriously. How widespread the practice of working in open air had become is documented by the paintings made not in Italy, but in the artists’ native countries—one of John Constable’s ephemeral cloud studies, painted in England in 1821–22, or an undated, evocative, obviously French row of trees in mist by Rosa Bonheur.

Edgar Degas, Castel Sant’Elmo, from Capodimonte, ca. 1856, Oil on paper, mounted on canvas. The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge.

There are wonderful discoveries to be made throughout, such as Edgar Degas’ tiny, economical, rather atypical Castel Sant’Elmo, from Capodimonte (ca. 1856), or Odilon Redon’s dreamy, undated view of a village on the coast of Brittany, completely unlike anything we associate with this visionary painter. Views of picturesque architecture in the North, such as Frederik Sødring’s Monastery of Alpirsbach near Freudenstadt (Black Forest) (late 1830s), with its play of flat rectangles and rich orchestration of textures, suggest that artists whose appetite for certain kinds of imagery had been whetted in Italy continued to seek similar subject matter once they returned home. Among the biggest surprises in the show are works by Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont, who, barred from entering the Academy because of her sex, studied privately with Valenciennes and, remarkably, had a very successful career, exhibiting in the Salons and financing her extensive travels with sales of her work. For almost twenty-five years, she lived in Italy, painting in many locations. Witness the exhibition’s forthright, boldly stroked, light-struck Roman Theater at Taormina (1828), with Mount Etna and a mushroom cloud of smoke from the volcano forming a mauve gray foil for the warm, sketchy ruins in the foreground.

Louise-Joséphine Sasrazin de Belmont, The Roman Theater at Taormina, 1828, Oil on paper, mounted on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Equally surprising, but for other reasons, is Georges Michel’s unusually large—twenty-nine by thirty-six and five-eighths inches—undated View of Paris Seen from Meudon, all stabbing finger marks, roiling smudges, and broad, washy strokes in a restricted palette of grays and off-whites against a tawny ground. The picture is so loose and suggestive that it’s hard to remember that Michel died in 1843. For sheer audacity, however, it’s hard to beat the explosive Study of Waves Breaking against Rocks at Sunset, by Baron François Gerard, with its confrontational viewpoint, its proto–Ab Ex swipes of impasto, and its vigorous sweeps of ominous grays against a lurid salmon sky. Faced with this uninhibited burst of clashing, generous brushstrokes, it seems impossible to believe that the Baron studied with the meticulous neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David. But that’s part of the fascination engendered by the paintings in “True to Nature.” Often we feel we are being allowed to see private works that give full rein to the artist’s pleasure in manipulating a responsive material or that transfer deep feeling, unmediated by rules or expectations. Often, throughout the show, we are seduced by the physicality of paint and stirred by the evocation of a particular quality of light, time of day, season, or place, so much so that time is transcended. We begin to forget about the real function of these vivid little paintings and about when they were made. But then we become aware of the firm geometric underpinnings of even the most exuberant images, and we are back in the neoclassical world of the Academy. That contradiction, too, is part of what makes the modest, casual paintings in “True to Nature” so compelling and rewarding.

Georges Michel, View of Paris Seen from Meudon, Undated, Oil on paper, mounted on wood panel. Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris.

The excellent catalogue, with essays by the curators and several other distinguished scholars of the field, is like a crash course in nineteenth-century aesthetics. There’s also an absorbing chapter on technique and materials by the conservator Ann Hoenigswald, as well as capsule artists’ biographies. If only the color in the copious reproductions were more accurate.

1 “True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1870” opened at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., on February 2 and remains on view through May 3, 2020.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 7, on page 41
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