Letting magic in on daylight

True to Nature is a perfectly timed exhibition. The European trend for landscape painting en plein air between 1780 and 1870 resonates with the resurgence of interest in the natural world that the lockdowns inspired, as well as contemporary concern for our threatened habitat. The exhibition of more than 100 oil sketches is thematically arranged across three of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s sizeable rooms. Academic and curatorial interest in the “contours of a discrete genre coming into focus” dates back to an original exhibition of plein air sketches at the Fitzwilliam and the Royal Academy in 1980 and 1981, Painting from Nature: The tradition of open-air oil sketching from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Philip Conisbee, then a young history of art professor at the University of Leicester, wrote the catalog entries and spent the next forty years participating in the rediscovery of the plein air tradition. The new exhibition and accompanying catalog continue the work of Conisbee and others. The result is a vibrant celebration of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists who packed up their materials and set off into the fields to get better acquainted with nature and paint.

Landscape oil sketches, painted direct from nature, were often produced as aid-memoires for more formal compositions, not for exhibition or sale. The opportunity to purchase paint in tubes, as opposed to mixing it in studios, made painting outdoors straight onto canvas much easier after 1841. True to Nature opens with the portable paintbox of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875). The broken string handle and tightly squeezed tubes of oils look as if they were used only yesterday. Inside the lid are carefully arranged miniature oil sketches: land, sea, skyscapes and a woman brooding over a bunch of cut flowers. Hung alongside is a portrait from 1874 of Corot, box in hand, painting in the open air, by his friend Eugène Decan. The sense of male camaraderie, an artist painting an artist painting a tree on a boys’ day out, is countered by the next exhibit: Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont’s “Views of the Pyrenees”, nine miniatures framed together in a way that visually echoes the interior of Corot’s paintbox.

Sarazin de Belmont (1790-1870) was barred from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which did not admit women until 1897. Instead she studied under Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, the landscape painter whose leading treatise Elemens de perspective pratique à l’usage des artists (1799-1800) elevated the academic status of plein air painting by codifying approaches to études d’après nature. He urged artists to plunge into nature as a man might into a river on a hot summer day – and Sarazin de Belmont followed his advice. She has three further paintings in the exhibition: “The Roman Theater at Taormina”, “Grotto in a Rocky Landscape” and “Rocky Coast with Bathers”.

“The Roman Theater at Taormina” is one of many paintings here in the tradition of the Grand Tour. It is displayed together with “Scene Near Naples” by Thomas Jones (1743-1803), “View Near Naples” by Simon Denis (1755-1812) and “View of the Bridge and the Town of Cava, Kingdom of Naples” by Jean Joseph-Xavier Bidould (1758-1846). Paintings of Rome and of the Roman Campagna dominate the first of the exhibition’s three large rooms. There are two remarkably similar views of Santa Trinità dei Monti, the church at the top of the Spanish Steps. Louis Dupré (1789-1837), painted the view in high summer, André Giroux (1801-79), in winter, with a rare dusting of snow. Both paintings were probably done from within the artists’ bedrooms during residencies at the French Academy at the Villa Medici. One of the exhibition’s curators, Mary Morton, imagines Giroux waking up and “hurrying to transcribe [the snow] before the sun melts it all away.”

Valenciennes became professor of perspective at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1812 and created the Prix de Rome for historical landscape painting four years later. He included a chapter on aerial perspective in his treatise, with separate sections on sky, clouds, vapors, fog, rain and storms. His “View of Rome” is half skyscape and his “Study of Clouds over the Roman Campagna” is about four-fifths sky. The first room of the exhibition ends with “Skies and Effects”. John Constable, who coined the term “skying”, has five paintings on display, two of them contrasting skyscapes: “Cloud Study: Stormy Sunset” (1821-2) and “Sky Study with a Shaft of Sunlight” (1822). A copy of the meteorologist and chemist Luke Howard’sEssay on the Modifications of Clouds (1803), which gave us the names cirrus, stratus, cumulus and nimbus, is included as “the first successful way to classify” clouds.

Chapter eight of Valenciennes’s treatise is on the application of linear perspective in painting and includes sections on bodies of water, rocks, volcanoes and trees. The second and third rooms of the exhibition focus on these subjects. Although Valenciennes’s historical painting “Eruption of Vesuvius Starting on 24 August 79 AD” (1813) is not included (perhaps because he relied very little on his sketches to produce it), there are depictions of Vesuvius erupting by Giuseppe de Nittis (1872), Johan Christian Clausen Dahl (1820) and Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier (1779), together with paintings of the volcano in a less dramatic state by Giroux (c.1827) and Jones (c.1778). The years 1780–1870 were ones of immense political upheaval, ending in the establishment of the French Third Republic and the Franco-Prussian war, but looking at the display of fragments collected from Vesuvius in 1794 – mineralized iron lock, window glass, carbonified bread and scoria – the revolutionary Terror in Paris and the death of Maximilien Robespierre seem very far away. None of the bloody battles, executions or regime changes of those years intrude on an exhibition devoted to the natural world.

As curator Jane Munro points out, “Painting outdoors could be a solitary activity, communing directly with the natural world. But it could also be a sociable one, with groups of painting together on the same artists site.” She mentions the naysayers, among them Edgar Degas, who thought the plein air painting trend misguided: “the air one sees in paintings … is not the air we can breathe”, he remarked. Discussing Claude Lorrain’s Pastoral Landscape with Lake Albano and Castel Gandolfo, included in the exhibition despite being dated 1639, Munro explains that the artist liked to lie in the fields from daybreak to sunset “to help him ‘penetrate’ nature” and represent it accurately. The final painting was done back in Lorrain’s studio, with field studies of light and color to hand. Lorrain is widely considered the father of plein air painting.

Sarazin de Belmont’s four contributions, together with “Misty Landscape” by Rosa Bonheur (1822-99), are the only works attributed to women in an exhibition of seventy artists and 118 paintings. This is not a complaint, just a fact. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “for most of history, Anonymous was a woman”, and perhaps the splendid unattributed paintings in True to Nature – “Clouds Passing through a Valley”, “A Terrace on the Isle of Capri”, “The Weeping Rock ”, “Study of a Tree” – were also by women. Even so, the overwhelming impression is that the plein air painters, alone or in groups, were mostly men with academic accreditation and support.

The curators have commissioned a wide range of responses to the exhibition, which are displayed on viewpoint boards alongside the paintings. Participants in the Fitzwilliam’s Age Well initiative, for example, reflect on two depictions of a beech wood with gypsies by JMW Turner: “I see their majesties, the energy of the trees. They are living things like us”. Liz Hide, director of the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences in Cambridge, reacts to Vilhelm Kyhn’s “Landscape in the Haute Savoie, with an Artist working in the Open Air”: “This painting captures so much of the geological history of this part of the French Alps, where sediments accumulated on the bed of a warm sea were scraped up, stacked up and folded like a crumpled rug as Africa and Europe collided”. It is almost impossible to spot the artist against the rocks.

The final room is devoted to trees. Constable’s “Salisbury” (possibly 1829) is a familiar painting seen anew in this context: the brilliance of the artist’s perspective and positioning of the cathedral spire to the extreme left of the painting, almost lost among the trees. An etching from the series “Delineations of the General Character, Ramifications and Foliage of Forest Trees” (1789) by John Robert Cozens is displayed with a label quoting Constable’s remark that Cozens’s sentimental portrayal of trees is “all poetry”.

Visitors leave True to Nature through the last room of the Fitzwilliam’s concurrent exhibition, Hockney’s Eye. The room, which becomes a pivot between the two shows, displays the artist’s hypnotic “Woldgate Woods, Winter, 2010″: nine synchronized digital videos, a mosaic of images representing a journey along a road in East Yorkshire. Hockney argues that “with this technique I could not only draw in space, I could also draw in time”, overcoming the limitations of a single viewpoint or camera lens. Here is another visual echo of Sarazin de Belmont’s nine views of the Pyrenees assembled into a single artwork, bringing True to Nature full circle.

Ruth Scurr is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

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