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French plein-air paintings at the Metropolitan

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François-Marius Granet, Monks in the Cloister of the Church of Gesù e Maria, Rome. Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 15 3/8 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Collection, Promised Gift of Wheelock Whitney III, and Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh, by exchange, 2003 Accession.

Over the last 40 years, one of the most significant developments in the study of 19th-century European paintings has been a growing appreciation of the importance of plein-air (outdoor) oil sketches to the Realist and Impressionist landscape aesthetic. In 2003 The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired from New York connoisseur Wheelock Whitney a comprehensive survey of sketches painted between 1785 and 1850 by many of the most notable artists of the French school who worked in this medium. The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850 will be held on the tenth anniversary of this major acquisition, January 22th, 2013 to April 21th, 2013.

Simon Denis (Flemish, 1755–1813). “View on the Quirinal Hill, Rome” (detail), 1800.

The 50 paintings in the exhibition, many no larger than a sheet of paper, reveal the rich tradition of painting out of doors nearly a century before Impressionism and provide an overture to key movements of 19th-century art that have long been a cornerstone of the Metropolitan Museum’s holdings. These works greatly enrich the story of how the European tradition of plein-air painting unfolded during a key period demarcated at its outset by the advent of the French Revolution in 1789 and at its conclusion by the abdication of France’s last king, Louis-Philippe, in 1848.

The Whitney Collection includes a remarkable concentration of plein-air oil studies, ranging from

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes’ The Banks of the Rance, Brittany (possibly 1785)

to Camille Corot’s Waterfall at Terni (1826),

and is complemented by a strong representation of finished landscapes, history and genre subjects, and portraiture—in short, the full range of paintings that one could expect to find in a Parisian private collection in the first half of the 19th century.

Adrien Dauzats (French, Bordeaux 1804–1868 Paris), The Giralda, Seville, 1836/37. Oil on paper, laid down on canvas, 8 1/8 x 11 7/8 in. (20.6 x 30.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Collection, Promised Gift of Wheelock Whitney III, and Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh, by exchange, 2003.

The practice of sketching in oil paint out of doors began to gain momentum in the late 18th century and is documented well before that. To equip themselves for sketching with paints out of doors, artists employed specialized apparatus: portable easels and paint boxes and, almost as fundamental as paint itself, paper. Paper was preferable to canvas because it was durable yet lightweight and easy to cut into small sheets. Typically, plein-air sketches were painted quickly in order to keep pace with nature’s fleeting effects. Paper’s smooth surface tended to allow the impasted pigment to lie on the surface, retaining the viscosity and luminosity of wet paint even after it dried. Such plein-air oil studies convey the sense of the artist painting d’après nature, a term that translates from the French as “from nature” but in the context of landscape sketching conveys immersion in nature.

Crossing the boundaries of subject matter and lying at the heart of the collection is a group of paintings executed by northern artists who were drawn to Rome by its combination of antiquity and natural beauty. A number of these painters—François-Édouard Picot, Léon Pallière, Charles Rémond, and André Giroux— received the Rome Prize from the Fine Arts Academy in Paris to study painting in Italy. Others traveled there independently, including Joseph Bidauld, Simon Denis, François-Marius Granet, and Théodore Caruelle d’Aligny.

The exhibition also illuminates one of the most popular developments in French painting during the 1820s: the depiction of Italian peasants, brigands, and clerics, by such representative figures as Claude Bonnefond, Jean-François Montessuy, and Louis-Léopold Robert.

The exhibition title The Path of Nature derives in part from the Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David, as quoted by his follower Léopold Robert, who wrote in a letter from Rome in 1818: “I strive to follow nature in all ways. David always told us that it is the only master that one can follow without losing his way.” Put into practice by the landscape and figure painters represented in this exhibition, including Robert, this statement signals a shift from the idealizing aims of Neoclassicism to the nascent trends of Romanticism and Realism in French art.

The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850 is organized by Asher Ethan Miller, Assistant Research Curator in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of European Paintings.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin entitled The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850, written by Asher Ethan Miller. It will feature significant research undertaken on the individual works since their acquisition by the Museum 10 years ago and contextualizes the paintings within the Metropolitan Museum’s collections. The publication will be on sale in the Museum’s book shops.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a Sunday at the Met afternoon of programming will take place on February 10, 2013.

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