By the time the First Impressionist Exhibition opened to the public in 1874, open‐air painting had been in existence for almost a century. While not the inventors of this type of painting, it was undoubtedly the Impressionists who took it to its maximum expression. The aim of the first exhibition at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
is to analyse the origins and growth of this new approach in art, starting with its earliest manifestation among late 18th‐century landscape painters and concluding with late, expressionist interpretations dating from the early years of the 20th century.
Impressionism and open‐air Painting. From Corot to Van Gogh is presented in the Museums temporary exhibition galleries from 5 February and brings together 113 works. Among the artists represented are pioneers of open‐air oil painting such as Pierre‐Henri Valenciennes and Thomas Jones, in addition to Turner, Constable, Corot, Rousseau, Courbet, Daubigny, Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Seurat, Van Gogh and Cézanne among many other key names. This extensive range of artists allows the exhibition to analyse the phenomenon of oil painting executed outdoors in its totality, as an artistic practice that offered new and unexpected possibilities for landscape painting and which revolutionised 19th‐century painting as a whole.
Open‐air studies: from the private to the public realm
The custom of painting landscapes outdoors as understood today did not take root among artists until the 19th century. Traditionally, landscapes were produced in the studio in accordance with the classical rules of composition, tonal gradation, perspective etc. They did not represent nature as it was, but rather as it should be; an idealised setting of heroes and legendary figures from history, mythology or the Bible. This was the case with both private commissions and works painted for official exhibitions.
From the late 18th century, however, young landscape painters often practiced during their period of training in Italy by painting small oil studies outdoors. Considered minor works by Pierre‐Henri de Valenciennes, the father of open‐air painting, they were primarily exercises of skill both for the eye and the hand. Indirectly, the intention was that through these works the landscape painter should acquire a repertoire of motifs for possible use in compositions produced in the studio and would thus not have to draw on the imagination or on memory. Whatever the case, open‐air studies were restricted to artists private working practice.
During the first half of the 19th century Italy ceded its central role in the tradition of landscape painting to other countries such as England, France and Germany. In parallel, the clear‐cut distinction between works created from life and studio paintings started to break down. From the 1820s there was a greater degree of cross‐over between the two formats with a more careful finish evident in open‐air oils and the frequent use of motifs taken from nature in compositions executed in the studio. Artists such as Corot and Constable extended the practice of painting directly from nature to their work as a whole. Alongside this, studies painted outdoors gained increasing recognition and independence and it became increasingly habitual for some landscape painters to present them in official competitions alongside other, more finished works.
During this period the Forest of Fontainebleau near Paris became a shared terrain for various generations of artists. The Neoclassical landscape painters coincided there with the members of what would later become known as the Barbizon School, among them Rousseau, Díaz de la Peńa and Daubigny, while Corot participated in both these trends. This contributed to the survival and ongoing evolution of open‐air painting and to locating it at the heart of artistic debate in 19th‐century France. Among the Barbizon painters, open‐air studies and works executed in the studio acquired a parallel status, with some placing more emphasis on the latter and others, such as Daubigny, on the former.
Monet, Sisley, Renoir and even Cézanne also worked in Fontainebleau. Spontaneity and rapid execution, previously characteristic of open‐air studies, now became inherent characteristics of Impressionist painting. As a result, landscapes painted outdoors acquired a new status, namely that of finished works of art. However, even the Impressionists were aware of the limitations of painting exclusively outdoors and on occasions returned to working in the studio. At the same time, their interest in achieving a true representation of the effects of outdoor light gave way to other aesthetic and expressive concerns that would ultimately prevail in works by Van Gogh, Nolde and Hodler.
An iconography of open‐air painting
The present exhibition is structured thematically around some of the most frequently depicted motifs in open‐air painting as conceived of by Valenciennes: trees, rocks, streams, etc. Dedicated to one of these themes, each room displays examples of art from different periods and schools with the aim of firstly emphasising the continuity of the tradition of open‐air painting and secondly the diversity of the visual solutions achieved.
1. Ruins, terraces and roofs:
In the 18th century, architectural ruins were one of the key elements within landscape painting, giving the work a picturesque character. As such they were the subject of attention on the part of the young painters who trained in Italy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, following the tradition of 17th‐century ideal landscape and 18th‐century vedute. However, in open‐air studies this picturesque element diminished in favour of an attention to veracity encouraged by Valenciennes who looked not so much for strict attention to detail as to a correct representation of the motif as a whole with regard to forms, textures and tonal values.
Rocks appear in the earliest examples of landscape paintings. The first separate studies of rocks were painted in Italy in the late 18th century but it was the Barbizon School that made this motif a preeminent one, and it is not by chance that the rock formations of the Forest of Fontainebleau occupied about a quarter of its entire surface area. The Barbizon painters frequently imbued these images with a sense of melancholy, solitude and desolation. In contrast, with American artists art and geology frequently went hand in hand. Towards the end of the 19th century Cézanne returned to the motif of rocks in order to analyse the spatial construction of his works without having to make use of shadow or perspective.
Mountains were not the subject of aesthetic interest until the 18th century. Among the artists working in Italy, most produced distant views intended as backgrounds for the composition of paintings in the studio. One exception was Vesuvius, which was the subject of numerous depictions. However, it was in central Europe that the iconography of mountains gave rise to the most original expressions, often located mid‐way between Romantic idealisation and scientific interest. Open‐air studies of mountains were also produced in countries such as Austria, France and Spain. In the early 20th century mountains acquired a symbolic, monumental character in the work of the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler.
4. Trees and plants:
The practice of executing open‐air studies of the finest and most picturesque trees and plants became widespread in late 18th‐century Italy. In addition, the work of the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus gave rise to a new interest in botany that spread rapidly in the English‐speaking world. However, it was in early 19th‐century France that this type of study was most widely deployed due the preparatory work required for entry into the Grand Prix de Rome de paysage historique, founded in 1817. For the Barbizon painters, trees became silent protagonists of the landscape. In the early 1860s the Impressionists also painted trees in the Forest of Fontainebleau, but in contrast to the Romantic interest in the sentiments transmitted by great oaks and beeches, artists such as Monet focused on the visual sensations of light as it filters through branches. Studies of trees acquired an essentially expressive nature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
5. Waterfalls, lakes, streams and rivers:
Water added variety and freshness to the composition, as seen in the earliest examples of landscape paintings onwards. Cascades and waterfalls appear in studies of locations near Rome such as Tivoli and Terni, famous for their cascades, and the region of the Castelli Romani with lakes Nemi and Albano, depicted in a synthetic manner by the Neo‐classical landscape painters. In England, oil studies of rivers reached their high point in the early work of Turner and Constable. Water is also notably present in the paintings of Courbet, who gave it a particularly material feel, and of Daubigny who introduced it into the subject matter of the Barbizon School and had a studio‐boat built, from which he painted his views of the Seine and the Oise. Among the Impressionists it was Monet who paid most attention to the changing effects of water.
6. Skies and clouds:
The depiction of the sky was a subject of interest to art theoreticians since the time of Leonardo. However, it was in the 18th and early 19th centuries that the custom of executing cloud studies became widespread, with examples by the French and German artists who trained in Italy. It was Constable, however, who undertook the most systematic observation of this subject. In a quest for greater integration of the sky and landscape in his major compositions, he painted more than one hundred studies of clouds during his two principal painting campaigns in Hampstead between 1820 and 1822. Another important sky painter was Boudin, who influenced artists such as Courbet and Monet. Among the Impressionists, however, it was Sisley who conceded most importance to skies and clouds, following the example of Constable. This room concludes with examples by Van Gogh and Nolde, both of whom had a stylised, subjective and almost abstract conception of clouds.
7. The sea:
Like mountains, the sea was contemplated with fear until the 18th century. While some Neo‐classical painters produced outdoor sea studies on the Gulf of Naples, it was once again Constable who was responsible for the first important examples painted outdoors. The fashion for beach holidays (shared by Constable) spread from England to northern France, and from the second quarter of the 19th century writers and painters began to discover the Normandy coastline. This was also where Courbet executed his first landscapes of the sea, which have a material quality comparable to the rocks of his native region of the Franche‐Comté. Among the Impressionists, Monet was particularly attracted to the sea and it is not by chance that he spent his youth on the Normandy coast where he subsequently undertook six painting campaigns between 1880 and 1883, depicting the cliffs, sea and sky.