London landscape paintings exhibition

This video is about Claude Monet.

From British daily The Morning Star:

Corot To Monet

National Gallery, London WC2

Friday 28 August 2009

by Christine Lindey

Exploring the work of artists who were inspired by rural life. A Fresh Look At Landscape From The Collection

Few nowadays would dispute the pleasure we get from Charles-Francois Daubigny‘s calm rural scenes painted from his studio-boat near the village of Auvers-sur-Oise.

No human-beings are in sight, clouds bounce through blue sky reflected in the river beneath, its banks bordered by midsummer greens of untamed trees. Yet when he and others pioneered such unassuming landscapes in the 1830s, they were condemned as radical challenges to the dominant aesthetic.

French 17th century academic theory, which later spread throughout Europe and its colonies, continued to dominate until the late 19th century.

Arguing that only history painting – ie narratives from the Bible or classical mythology – could convey profound philosophical truths, it placed landscape-painting just above the lowest category of flower-painting in its strict hierarchy of subject matter.

Compared to other subjects, there were relatively many women artists (eg, Rachel Ruysch) in flower painting. So, this says something about gender hierarchy as well.

Some landscapists evaded this limitation by painting large landscapes with mythological or biblical subjects. Others reconciled themselves to a lowly professional status.

Academic dogma held that art should improve upon nature. Artists did paint preparatory sketches from nature but solely as notations to be referred to when composing the finished painting according to classical rules in the studio.

Rome and its surrounding countryside was the approved subject since it was the site of classical antiquity. Hordes of artists congregated there.

The first room of the National Gallery’s exhibition are filled with these small sketches. Known as plein-air (open-air) sketches, they were not intended to be displayed or sold. Varying from close details of foliage or cloud formations to comprehensive vistas, they convey the northerner’s fascination with the strong tonal contrasts of Mediterranean sunlight on foliage, buildings and sky.

In the 1820s and 1830s, John Constable in England and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and others in France challenged academic theory.

Manipulating nature into imagined antique landscapes was dishonest and irrelevant. They would seek truth to their response to nature in the present day.

Dispensing with narrative, they asserted the beauty of unassuming corners of their native lands, thereby reflecting the nationalism of this era.

Forced to work fast on their plein-air sketches to capture the ever-changing light of northern Europe, they began to value the spontaneity and lack of finish entailed and sought to retain some of this in their finished studio paintings.

But the establishment regarded their visible brush marks and untempered tonal contrasts as technical incompetence and their humble subject matter as contemptibly ugly.

By mid-century, colonies of plein-airists were working in the French countryside, many based in Barbizon – the village in the Fontainebleau forest from which such painting became known.

Some artists conveyed the drama of nature. Theodore Rousseau‘s tiny study Sunset In The Auvergne is painted with fast, bold brushstokes. Hostile brambles and trees darken the foreground behind which a slim band of startlingly light cream and lemon denotes the sunlit valley, above which shudder layers of charcoal storm clouds.

Others such as Charles-Francois Daubigny and Corot dwelled on the tranquility of country lanes, forest glades and river banks.

Tiny peasants indicated scale or acted as compositional devices – a red waistcoat to complement green of corn or a white kerchief to dramatise the tonal scale.

Yet it was in the 1830s and 1840s that the Enclosures Act, agricultural machinery and the lure of better wages in the fast-growing cities uprooted peasant families to city slums. Most plein-airists averted their eyes from the changes to the physical landscape, rural poverty, drudgery and social upheavals brought by the Industrial Revolution.

As the relationship between country and city shifted, artists and their publics began to idealise rural life.

The growing bourgeoisie ousted church and aristocracy as dominant patrons. Uneducated in the classics and the academy’s aesthetic, many industrialists nostalgic for their rural childhoods spent their fortunes on landscape paintings.

By the 1860s, finished Barbizon paintings sold well.

It was then that the future Impressionists asserted that truth to nature could only be retained by painting the entire work in the open air.

Asserting that the ensuing speedy brushwork and sketchy drawing was beautiful, they daringly offered their plein-air works as signed finished paintings for public consumption – hence the derision with which these “sketches” were met by their profession.

The Beach at Trouville, by Monet

To 21st century eyes, paintings such as Claude Monet’s The Beach At Trouville c1870, in which the grains of sand blown into the broadly brushed oil paint are still visible, are now seen as suitable birthday card images for a staid aunt.

Seeing the original in relation to earlier plein-air paintings is to realise just how radical they were.

By the late 19th century, spontaneous execution became increasingly valued and dealers began selling academic and Barbizon plein-air sketches.

Many of the National Gallery’s landscapes come from bequests of collections made at that time, including part of Alexander Forbes’s collection. He was a railway magnate who amassed so many paintings that it was rumoured he would not miss 100 Corots.

The exhibition does not provide a “fresh look at landscape from the collection” as its title states.

There are no orientalist or finished classical landscapes and none by women, despite landscape-painting being widely practised by them. What we see is French plein-air painting.

Since the collection is mostly dependent on bequests, it reflects turn-of-the-century bourgeois taste which, for finished paintings, favoured the tamer, late Barbizon ones. Plein-airism’s social and political context is simply ignored.

However, it is good to get to see paintings usually kept in the National Gallery’s reserve collection and gratifying that the exhibition is free. Those used to screen culture’s brazen back-lit colours may have to adjust their eyes to the subtler tonalities of pigment, but there are some gems here.

Richard Bonington, La Ferté

No reproduction does justice to the sheer brio of Richard Bonington‘s tiny seashore study La Ferté in which paint is swept on with such sureness of touch and accuracy of tone that no redefinitions spoil the intensity of the artist’s response to his subject and to the liquid materiality of paint.

Runs until September 20.

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2 thoughts on “London landscape paintings exhibition

  1. Pingback: Australian impressionist painter Frederick McCubbin | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Abstract expressionist painting in Cornwall | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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