Yesterday, I commemorated here the anniversary of the death of the landscape painter who made plein air oil sketching a part of standard practice, so paving the way for the transformations which occurred in the nineteenth century and after – Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819). This article looks at his remarkable achievement across time.
No one knows who first practised landscape oil sketching, but two wonderful paintings by Diego Velázquez of the grounds of the Villa Medici in Rome, painted during his first visit to Italy in 1630, currently seem favourites.
Although there are claims that later in that decade others followed suit, the next surviving plein air oil sketches are those of Alexandre-François Desportes (1661-1743). He was a professional painter of hunting scenes and animals, but is reported to have made some oil sketches in front of landscape motifs. Usable images of these aren’t available, and in any case he doesn’t appear to have handed his techniques on to any pupil or successor.
Plein air oil sketching was described, and recommended, by Roger de Piles in his book Cours de Peinture, which was published in 1708, contemporary with the work of Desportes. Other books on painting and art in the eighteenth century also cover the topic, and Claude-Joseph Vernet was recorded as having painted oil sketches en plein air, but again none has survived.
At Vernet’s suggestion, Valenciennes made copious oil sketches such as this of Farm-buildings at the Villa Farnese: the Two Poplar Trees when he was painting in the Roman Campagna in 1782-85. He not only built himself a large visual library of sketches from nature, but published a widely-used book on landscape painting in which he recommended the practice.
At roughly the same time, the father of Welsh landscape painting, Thomas Jones, was doing exactly the same – also in Rome. This tiny work of his in London’s National Gallery is a gem worth seeking out.
I can’t find any evidence that John Constable was influenced by either Valenciennes or Jones, but he too used oil sketches made in front of the motif to develop his large finished works. From about 1810 onwards, these included many cloud studies in what he called ‘skying’.
The first major landscape painter to adopt Valenciennes’ practice and to show his sketches was Camille Corot. During his first stay in Italy, between 1825-28, he developed his skills painting outdoors in the Campagna, producing classics such as those above and below.
By this time, Valenciennes’ teaching had spread across Europe, and all good landscape painters in training aimed to spend at least a couple of years learning to paint en plein air in the countryside around Rome. Shown is a fine example of the island of Capri, off the coast of Naples, painted by the German Carl Blechen (1798-1840).
Plein air painting in northern Europe was slower to get off the ground, because of its more fickle and inclement weather. Corot continued to paint outdoors when he was back in France, and in the middle of the nineteenth century Eugène Boudin popularised oil sketches on the northern French coast.
On the last weekend in August, 1857, Boudin visited the Finistère region’s largest religious celebration, and made sketches in oils, including The Pardon of Sainte-Anne-La-Palud (study) (1858). These he used to paint a more traditionally finished oil painting, exactly as taught by Valenciennes, which was shown in the Paris Salon the following year, where it was praised by Baudelaire.
Another important plein air landscape painter of the time was Johan Barthold Jongkind, whose work has sadly been more neglected.
Boudin was a major influence on Claude Monet, and Corot on Camille Pissarro, two of the most important of the Impressionist landscape artists.
Pissarro was taught by Camille Corot, and became one of the most skilful and adept plein air artists ever. However, in order to capture as much of the ‘truth of nature’, he frequently achieved great detail in his paintings by working on them over periods of several days. This enabled him to depict complex and densely-populated views, such as those which he painted during his period of Divisionist style, and the human panoramas of his late career.
Paul Cézanne learned to paint en plein air alongside Pissarro’s easel in 1873. Among Cézanne’s early plein air works is this view of the House of Père Lacroix, Auvers-sur-Oise. As with all beginners, he took a long time getting the painting to look right, so different sections of the roof were painted several hours apart, as shown by their cast shadows.
Claude Monet also took plein air painting in new directions, although in many ways his works confuse the whole practice. John Singer Sargent first met Monet in 1876, and in about 1885 they painted together en plein air in the grounds of Monet’s house in Giverny – a good opportunity for one superb exponent of plein air painting to paint another.
Unlike most plein air artists, Monet often worked outdoors on large canvases, which would necessarily take several long sessions to complete.
Monet’s secret is that many of his apparently plein air paintings were in fact taken back to the studio, where he worked on them over several months. Flowering Plum Trees is a good example of this: as shown in the detail below, its paint layer has a very complex structure. Some marks have been added wet-in-wet, but many wet-on-dry, demonstrating that it must have been worked on over a period of weeks or months.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, and into the next, oil sketches became even more painterly, and often highly gestural, as shown in Boudin’s late painting of Laundresses on the Beach (above), and Francisco Pradilla Ortiz’s Laundry Day, below.
Valenciennes’ influence was great, and enduring. It has transformed landscape painting.
Callen A (2015) The Work of Art. Plein Air Painting and Artistic Identity in Nineteenth-Century France, Reaktion Books. ISBN 978 1 78023 3555 0.
Clarke M (2015) Precursors of Plein Air Painting, pp 59-80 in Greub S (ed) Monet. Lost in Translation, Hirmer. ISBN 978 3 7774 2428 6.
Conisbee P, Faunce S and Strick J (1996) In the Light of Italy. Corot and Early Open-Air Painting, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 067941.
Galassi P (1991) Corot in Italy. Open-Air Painting and the Classical-Landscape Tradition, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 049572.
Riopelle C and Bray X (1999/2003) A Brush with Nature. The Gere Collection of Landscape Oil Sketches, Yale UP. ISBN 1 85709 998 2.