Two hundred years ago today, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, one of the major landscape painters of the Western tradition, died in Paris. Yesterday I showed some of his finished works, which led the evolution from the idealised landscapes of Micolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain to modern views of nature.
Valenciennes’ most enduring and important achievement, though, was in the practice of plein air painting, which was the foundation of nineteenth century landscape art and the basis of Impressionism. Following the advice of Claude-Joseph Vernet, Valenciennes devoted a lot of effort to building himself a large image library of oil sketches of real landscapes, which he then used as the basis for his finished paintings.
This library was never intended for public eyes, and much of it has been lost. But a precious few examples survive, believed to date from his work in the Roman Campagna between 1782-85. The richest collection of these fragile works on paper is that in the Louvre, where they are one of its great treasures. There are also a few examples which have found their way into major collections in Europe and America. In this article, I show images of all that I have been able to locate.
The Louvre, Paris
One of the finest, and the best-known, of all Valenciennes’ oil sketches is this showing Farm-buildings at the Villa Farnese: the Two Poplar Trees reputedly from 1780. This shows a Renaissance villa now in the centre of the city of Rome, although here its park setting makes it look as if it is out in the country. It was built in 1506-10 for a banker, and appropriately contains superb frescoes by Raphael and others. It is now owned by the state and most is open to visitors.
View of the Convent of Ara Coeli with Pines is a superb view of what is known as the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli, again in central Rome. This is on the top of the Campidoglio, and affords the view over the city which appears behind the pine on the right. It is situated close to the Forum.
This untitled sketch shows a different view over the city of Rome.
Several of these surviving oil sketches are brilliant studies in the effects of light, such as Rome: Houses and a Domed Church shown here.
I’m not sure if anyone has identified the buildings shown in Rooftops in the Shadows, but suspect that this too is close to the centre of Rome, perhaps on one of its hills. Is this the first plein air painting of washing on the line?
Around forty years later, John Constable sketched clouds and weather in what he called ‘skying’. Here’s one of Valenciennes’ groundbreaking sketches from the early 1780s, in Rome: Study of Clouds. He wasn’t the first plein air painter by any means, nor the first to make sky studies, but it was he who established the practice among landscape artists, both in his direct teaching and in his book published in 1800.
The Louvre has most of Valenciennes’ surviving oil sketches, but by no means all of them. This superb Italian Landscape is now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, has another of his sky sketches, in Study of Clouds over the Roman Campagna.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, in Ohio, has this magnificent View of Rome, which I think compares with the Villa Farnese above in its quality. Notable here is the depiction of the clouds of dust and smoke rising from the streets of the city, which surely qualify it as an ‘impression’.
Valenciennes himself may now be little-known, but his influence extends to almost every landscape painting made since – Barbizon, Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and beyond. Tomorrow I will show how that influence is manifest in some great plein air paintings.
Marlais M, Varriano J, and Watson WM (2004) Valenciennes, Daubigny, and the Origins of French Landscape Painting, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. ISBN 0 972 1222 0 6.