Truth in (landscape) painting 1

There are many types of ‘truth’ in painting, but the truth that I am concerned with here is fidelity to motif: how faithfully does a painter attempt to depict the objects that they are painting?

It is easy to define the extremes. Hyperrealists attempt to paint absolutely everything that their eyes can resolve within the limits of their medium and canvas. In complete contrast an abstract painter will make a painting which might bear no resemblance to physical objects in front of them or even remembered. Everyone else is somewhere in between, and my purpose here is to consider just where that should be for a painter who professes to be a ‘realist’ as regards landscapes.

oil on canvas, 118 x 160 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. WikiArt.
Nicolas Poussin, The Four Seasons, Summer (Ruth and Boaz), 1664, oil on canvas, 118 x 160 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. WikiArt.

Although they were not the first landscape painters by a long way, Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorraine undertook sketches and studies en plein air, which they then used to develop idealised finished works. I am sure that if you had the time you could probably work out the locations on which they based many of the passages within their magnificent oil paintings. But in the terms I am using here, there was essentially no truth in those paintings; they were as fictional as the history paintings from which they had emerged.

As the genre evolved, so it became linked with the movement across Europe which transformed the landscape into the awe-inspiring and picturesque. Plein air techniques developed, centred on the Roman Campagna, which were brought to more local regions by the likes of Richard Wilson.
Theorists of the day had to accommodate both the idealised landscapes of the past (and of history painting), and the new trend for realism and painting real motifs. Sir Joshua Reynolds, first President of the Royal Academy, laid out his influential views in letters published in 1759 which grew into his Discourses. He rejected simple imitation of the motif:

“the usual and most dangerous error is on the side of minuteness; and therefore I think caution most necessary where most have failed. The general idea constitutes real excellence. All smaller things, however perfect in their way, are to be sacrificed without mercy to the greater.”

(Discourse delivered to Students of the Royal Academy on 10 December 1771.)

John Constable, "Dedham Lock and Mill", 1820, oil on canvas, 53.7 x 76.2 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. WikiArt.
John Constable, Dedham Lock and Mill, 1820, oil on canvas, 53.7 x 76.2 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. WikiArt.

Many of the best landscape painters of the 18th and 19th centuries did just that, to varying degrees. Although we think of John Constable as painting quite faithfully to his motifs, in fact he was only too happy to move or omit trees and otherwise tweak his compositions. Clearly influenced by Reynolds, he taught in his second discourse at the Royal Institution on 2 June 1836:

“The works of the truly great men who have shone in art were not mere copies of the productions of Nature, which can never be more than servile imitations. Yet, it should be remembered that the study of Nature in her most minute details is indispensable, and can never be made in vain.”

(John Constable’s Discourses, ed. RB Beckett, Suffolk Records Society, 1970, p. 57.)

The revolutionary movements of and precipitated by the 19th century, particularly Impressionism and its descendants, seem not to have challenged this. Even Cézanne, claimed as the ‘father’ of 20th century movements, kept to the Reynolds tradition; although passed on to us through Cezanne’s son and Leo Larguier, their most succinct expression is:

“To paint from nature is to set free the essence of the model. Painting does not mean slavishly copying an object. The artist must perceive and capture harmony from among many relationships. He must transpose them in a scale of his own invention while he develops them according to a new and original logic.”

(Larguier Le dimanche avec Paul Cézanne”, 1925, translated in Conversations with Cézanne, ed. Michael Doran, 2001)

Paul Cézanne, "Le Bassin du Jas de Bouffan en Hiver", 1878 (R350), oil on canvas, 47 x 56.2 cm. private collection. WikiArt.
Paul Cézanne, Le Bassin du Jas de Bouffan en Hiver, 1878 (Rewald 350), oil on canvas, 47 x 56.2 cm, private collection. WikiArt.

But there is still more to come, as that quotation echoes a very different school of thought, that of the polymath physician Hermann von Helmholtz. It has been suggested that Cezanne was greatly influenced by von Helmholtz, specifically his popular and widely-translated article on the optics of painting, where he wrote:

“What he” [the painter] “has to give is not a mere transcript of the object, but a translation of his impression into another scale of sensitiveness, which belongs to a different degree of impressibility of the observing eye, in which the organ speaks a very different dialect in responding to the impressions of the outer world.”

(On the Relation of Optics to Painting, in Popular Scientific Lectures, J Fitzgerald, New York, undated, reprinted Dover, New York, 1962.)

But before I move on (in the next post in this series), take a closer look at the reflections shown on the pool in the painting above. A few moments of thought should reveal to you that they bear no resemblance whatsoever to the reflections that Cézanne could have seen at the time that he painted this work. Does that conform to his intentions, Reynolds’ instructions, or what?