By: Jenna Curry
In 1926, the year of his death, Claude Monet wrote, “The only merit I have is to have painted directly from nature with the aim of conveying my impressions in front of the most fugitive effects.” The Impressionists were indebted to a long tradition of artists who went beyond the studio walls to sketch and paint outdoors. A new exhibition at the National Gallery in London, Corot to Monet: A Fresh Look at Landscape From the Collection, which runs July 8–Sept. 20, will showcase about 80 plein air works by 40 artists from the late 18th century up to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, in an effort to gauge the influence of this style on the French Impressionists.
Artists “painted in the open air and tried to capture the fleeting effects of light on nature,” says Sarah Herring, the National Gallery’s Isaiah Berlin assistant curator of post-1800 paintings. The show opens with works by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Simon Denis, who concentrated on the Italian landscape of the Roman Campagna. A major emphasis will also be placed on the Barbizon School, based in a small town in the Forest of Fontainebleau, where artists such as Théodore Rousseau worked in the natural landscape of woodland, meadows, marshes and gorges.
Over the course of the 19th century, the plein air style changed, mostly in the direction of freer brushwork and an extended palette brought about by a greater variety of available pigments. “The type of scene changed, too,” says Herring. “Artists tended to paint scenes of outdoor life rather than a study of one tree trunk.” Monet’s works hinted at a shift of attention from the natural world to modern life. According to Herring, the major difference between Corot’s Roman Campagna, With the Claudian Aqueduct (circa 1826) and Monet’s Beach at Trouville (1870), both shown on this page, lies not in the technique but in the subject. Each artist used a single layer of paint, but while Corot depicted the countryside, with antique ruins set under a luminous sky, Monet focused on two sophisticated women—one of whom is his wife—relaxing beneath umbrellas at a beach.
Some of the works in the exhibition are oil sketches and studies that were started outdoors but probably completed in the studio; both of these paintings, however, were done almost entirely outdoors. Macrophotographs of Monet’s Beach at Trouvilletaken by researchers at the National Gallery revealed grains of sand embedded in the paint.