Painting al Fresco
Never made for sale, plein air oil sketches of the late 18th and early 19th centuries have found an astute and scholarly audience that appreciates their greatness.
By Sarah E. Fensom
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in Emile, his treatise on education, “Nature never deceives us; it is always we who deceive ourselves.” For young painters living in the wake of Rousseau, learning the visual truth of nature was of vital importance. The transforming patterns of weather, season, and hour; the changing temperaments of a clouded sky; the growth of endemic flora and fauna in a given region could not be better learned from a master, no matter how accomplished, than from the natural environment. Nor could even the most sensitive artist truly perceive these details within the walls of the studio. For painters in late 18th- and early 19th-century Europe, learning in the field literally meant learning in the field. Painting oil sketches en plein air was an essential part of an artist’s education, and fell in line with Enlightenment thinking, which encouraged observing reality first-hand.
The tradition of the outdoor oil sketch thrived particularly in Rome, where budding artists from elsewhere came to be immersed in the environs where ruins stood and the aura of the antique still hung in the air. They ventured outside of the city center armed with portable paint kits. The informality of their materials—paper supports, small pieces of canvas or board, an edited number of brushes and pigments—encouraged experimentation and stoked ingenuity. Unlike their late-Renaissance predecessors, who did sketch outdoors but typically used crayon or pen, artists of this period dismissed the notion that oil paint be reserved solely for studio use. Instead, the viscous, complex medium gave their sketches a sense of lightness and immediacy.
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, a French painter, who, while working in Rome between 1778 and 1782, painted in nature, often repeatedly capturing the same trees or houses at different times of day, wrote of the concept of the “landscape portrait” in his 1800 treatise Reflections and Advice to a Student on Painting, Particularly on Landscape. The idea was that an artist should paint a landscape while looking at it directly, capturing its essential details as one might capture facial features or costume. Valenciennes thought that oil sketches should be done quickly; after a lapse of two hours, shifting conditions rendered a sketch inaccurate. So with this in mind, training artists moved fast, painting freely and thinly. Spontaneity was the move.
The goal of these oil sketches was not exhibition or sale. Instead, they were aide-mémoires to be expounded upon later or consulted in the studio. Because these oil sketches were not typically intended for the Salon, marchand-mercier, or dealer, the vast majority of them fell through the cracks of art history. Those that did survive long struggled to find a fan base.
In 1954, however, an important fan emerged. John Gere, a specialist of Old Master Italian drawings and curator of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, took a shine to a group of outdoor oil sketches that came to auction in London. The collection featured over 30 works on paper by the British painter Thomas Jones—all en plein air sketches of Rome, Naples, and his native Wales. The works, which had been in private hands since Jones’ death in 1803, sold again to a private collector. Nevertheless, Gere, struck by their lambency, searched for works by Jones, eventually acquiring for the British Museum a 1782 sketch of Neapolitan rooftops. While he was looking for similar works in public collections, a 1941 article by Lionello Venturi pointed him to the Louvre. In the previous decade, the princesse de Croÿ had donated hundreds of drawings and oil sketches by Valenciennes to the museum, but like the Jones works, they had been out of public view since the artist’s death in 1819. When Gere was able to see the de Valenciennes works, he observed “their freshness, their informality, their directness of vision, and their emphasis on effects of light and atmosphere….” He noted that unlike most drawings, they also had a “resonance of colour.”
Gere began to collect outdoor oil sketches with his wife Charlotte, who was also an art historian. Working with a small selection of dealers in London, Paris, and New York, the pair hunted down examples, reveling in the sleuth work that went along with acquiring largely unsigned works. They eventually compiled a collection of more than 80 works from the late 17th and early 18th centuries—the most important collection of outdoor oil sketches in the world (it is now, notably, in the collection of the National Gallery, London). Filling the walls of their London home, the couple created a “laboratory of connoisseurship…to compare, to discuss, to look again, to teach and to learn.” There, colleagues and friends congregated around these paintings, and appreciation for them grew. Exhibitions like John Gage’s 1969 show “A Decade of English Naturalism, 1810–1820,” which featured studies by Constable, Turner, and others; Gere’s 1977 “French Landscape Drawings and Sketches of the 18th Century” at the British Museum; and exhibitions at dealer Jack Baer’s London gallery, Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, in 1978 and 1979, also raised their profile. Exhibitions of artists like Jones, Valenciennes, François Desportes, Théodore Caruelle d’Aligny, and Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld emerged throughout the 1970s, as well.
Another integral figure in the growing scholarship and appreciation of these oil sketches was Philip Conisbee. The British-American scholar and curator not only visited the Gere collection but reviewed several of the seminal oil sketch shows of the late ’60s and ’70s. A specialist on Claude-Joseph Vernet, Conisbee organized a groundbreaking 1976 exhibition dedicated to the French painter, which appeared at Kenwood House, London, and the Musée de la Marine in Paris. Vernet’s oil sketches did not survive, but Conisbee established a through-line between the painter, a vociferous proponent of the practice, the younger Valenciennes, whom he inspired, and his students Bidauld, Édouard Bertin, and Achille Etna Michallon. Michallon served as teacher to Camille Corot, the painter who is considered the most significant inheritor of the practice.
In a paper published around that time about a rare group of Desportes sketches, Conisbee tapped into the human aspect of these practical works, writing that they revealed a “tender and loving regard for the world: light raking the only just autumnal leaves and enclosing a wall of a favoured secret wood, cattle grazing in the heat of a summer afternoon, a silent stretch of hidden river with its plants and grasses, and so on.” For some three centuries artists like Desportes, Constable, and Cézanne, he wrote, found “the respite of enveloping nature” on these sketching trips. And thus, in these works, there is not simply the study of light, topography, and natural detail but also a sense of calm, solitude, and restoration embedded within the very act of painting them.
In 1980–81, Conisbee staged “Painting from Nature: The Tradition of Open-Air Oil Sketching from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Centuries” at The Fitzwilliam Museum and the Royal Academy—the show that Charlotte Gere said let “the oil-sketch cat well and truly out of the bag.” Partnering with Geres, Gowing, and the Fitzwilliam curator Duncan Robinson, Conisbee gathered more than 100 sketches. Nearly simultaneously, the scholar Peter Galassi presented “Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography” at MoMA, a show that positioned Italian outdoor oil sketches as predecessors of photography. With the assistance of Geres and Gowing, Galassi had completed a dissertation on Corot’s Italian sketches of the late 1820s, positing that the French painter was responsible for stretching the oil sketch tradition deep into the 19th century.
Conisbee’s scholarship extended throughout the ’80s and included even trying to procure pre-1830 paint boxes and catalogues from art supply companies like Rowney and Winsor & Newton. A fellowship with the Yale Center for British Art brought him to the U.S. in 1985, and curatorial posts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for which he acquired outdoor oil sketches, followed.
In 1992 Conisbee became curator of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and in some ways that’s where the story of plein air sketches connects to the present day. Three years later, he staged “In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting,” a lodestar show that traveled to Brooklyn and St. Louis. The exhibition not only successfully positioned Corot’s practice of outdoor oil sketching within a much larger phenomenon but also quashed the notion that the Impressionists were the first to fling the doors of the studio open and walk outdoors to paint. It also helped grow scholarship—and the market—for these works even further.
“True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1870,” an exhibition currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (through November 29), capitalizes on new scholarship in the field, but shares a great kinship with Conisbee’s 1996 show. Kaywin Feldman, the NGA’s director, says, “The Gallery is fortunate to have one of the finest public collections of landscape sketches by 18th and 19th century European painters, largely due to acquisitions made by the late Philip Conisbee during his time as the Gallery’s senior curator of European paintings from 1993 to 2008.”
The NGA’s show features some 100 plein air oil sketches, including highlights from three of the best collections of their kind: its own, that of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and the Fondation Custodia in Paris—the collection of Dutch art historian and collector Frits Lugt (loans from a private collector are peppered in as well). The show features a host of recent discoveries, exploring issues of attribution, chronology, and technique. And it takes the enlightened approach of organizing works in 11 loose thematic sections. With this arrangement by motif or location, Feldman says, “the aim is less to inform the visitor along didactic lines than to delight visitors with the discrete visual poetry captured within each framed view.” She continues, “This structure also mirrors the way that many painters represented in the exhibition collected and classified these spontaneously observed glimpses of nature, sometimes for later use in a finished picture, or to teach students.”
One section explores Valenciennes and his influence. Works in the show like Study of Clouds over the Roman Campagna (circa 1782/85, oil on paper, mounted on cardboard), from the NGA’s collection, find the French painter exploring the countryside outside of Rome. While Michel Dumas’ Fontaine dans la campagne de Rome (circa 1838–40, oil on canvas, mounted on wood panel), which comes to the show from a London-based private collection, and Johan Thomas Lundbye’s View of the Roman Campagna (1845, oil on paper, mounted on wood panel), from the Fondation Custodia, show younger artist’s taking his advice. Corot’s The Island and Bridge of San Bartolomeo, Rome (1825/28, oil on paper, mounted on canvas), also from the NGA and in this section, shows the French artist in Valenciennes’ footsteps, as well.
In a section dedicated to landscape features that painters found particularly challenging to render faithfully—waterfalls, trees, skies, coastlines, and rooftops—is Constable’s Cloud Study: Stormy Sunset (1821–22, oil on paper, mounted canvas). The study, which is in the collection of the NGA, finds the British painter practicing the moody cloud-filled skies for which he is so fondly celebrated. A host of grays and deep pinks and thick strokes of the brush, the sketch establishes mood through simple means.
In Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld’s View of the Waterfalls at Tivoli (1788, oil on paper, mounted on canvas) the French painter elegantly captures the difficult waterfall, detailing the foam of its rushing water and the deep shadow from its tall rock formation. Baron François Gerard’s A Study of Waves breaking against Rocks at Sunset (1770–1837, oil on millboard) depicts a shoreline at sunset with heavily crashing waves. It is painted so freely and loosely that one might think it from more than a century later, at the dawn of Expressionism.
In Jules Coignet’s View of Bozen with a Painter (1837), one sees the practice of the outdoor oil sketch in action. Situated amid the Italian Alps, a painter sits on a cliff. He is clad in a hat and smock, covered overhead by a white umbrella, but otherwise with minimal set-up. He buries himself in his small canvas, the whole landscape stretching out before him, a willing and cooperative sitter.
The exhibition’s run in D.C. was unfortunately interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, though it is on view through the end of this month. “True to Nature” will, however, find new life at the Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt in February of next year, and then the Fitzwilliam Museum some months thereafter.