While John Constable and JMW Turner were skying in Britain, the rest of Europe was in the throes of a revolution in landscape painting. Every aspiring landscape artist packed their brushes and easel and headed for the sunnier climes of southern Europe to paint outdoors, where the weather is more consistent and allowed them to work en plein air day after day.
The direction to head south and paint in front of the landscape had come from Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), whose 1800 textbook had become popular with aspiring landscape painters everywhere, except perhaps in Britain.
Sadly, very few of their oil sketches have survived. Most were on friable supports such as paper or cardboard, which hadn’t been isolated from the long-term effects of oil paint. Few sketches were exhibited outside the artists’ studios, and of those that did reach the hands of collectors, most have since disappeared and not entered public collections.
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg left his native Denmark a few days after his wedding in 1810 and went on to Rome, where he stayed between 1813-16. Although not noted as an enthusiast for skying, this ingenious landscape showing A View through Three of the Arches of the Coliseum in Rome (1815) recalls the Renaissance tradition of setting small vignettes of a distant view in windows or arches.
Carl Blechen studied at the Berlin Academy from 1822, then travelled to Dresden and Switzerland. After he was dismissed as a stage painter at the Royal Theatre in Berlin in 1827, he travelled first to the Baltic coast then south to Italy, where he painted plein air in the Roman Campagna. His copious oil studies were in a similar style to those being painted in the early nineteenth century by others in the area, but were seen as being radically different back in Berlin.
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 his skyscape above, ostensibly a View of the Convent of S. Onofrio on the Janiculum, Rome. Unlike some of the other plein air painters of this time, Corot doesn’t appear to have engaged in much skying as such, but where he allows them his skies are wondrous.
Richard Parkes Bonington was one British artist who followed the Continental trend and travelled south to paint en plein air.
Bonington reached northern Italy in 1826, where he stayed in Venice to paint some of its marvellous skies. The Grand Canal Looking Toward the Rialto (1826), painted in oils on millboard, may have been started en plein air, but appears to have been completed later in the studio, perhaps when he was back in Paris, which may account for the difference in hues in the sky.
Grand Canal, the Rialto in the Distance – Sunrise (1828) is another of Bonington’s finest oil paintings, made in the studio from graphite and other sketches from 1826. This painting has quite commonly been described as showing sunset, but as the view faces almost due east, must have been set in the early morning.
At this time, Bonington’s health was deteriorating rapidly from the ravages of tuberculosis. He was taken back to London for medical attention, and died there on 23 September 1828, a month before he would have turned 26.
Carl Blechen visited the island of Capri in 1828, where he made hundreds of sketches to develop into finished paintings when he was back in his Berlin studio. This sketch appears to have been painted in front of the motif above a bay on the mainland of Italy during that trip, or shortly afterwards.
Blechen’s superb finished painting of Marina Grande, Capri (1829) was made in the studio, though. This shows the north coast of the island, looking from the west of the Marina Grande to the east, with the Tiberius Rocks and Monte Tiberio in the distance, and I think that may be Vesuvius in the far distance.
Blechen’s late works increasingly anticipated Impressionism. A Scaffold in a Storm from about 1835 appears to have been executed rapidly in front of the motif despite being a view from his studio over Berlin and Brandenburg, with many brush-strokes plainly visible.
Heinrich Bürkel was still learning to paint landscapes when he left his native Bavaria, Germany, in 1823 to paint in the countryside around Rome. He remained there until 1832, and appears to have painted Shepherds in the Roman Campagna from his plein air sketches in 1837.
Alexandre Calame, the father of Swiss mountain landscape painting, was already exhibiting successfully when he decided to go and paint in the Campagna in 1844. Following his return to Switzerland, he painted commissions like this Stormy Mountain Torrent (1848), what he termed his “Swiss horrors”. These brought together the forbidding mountainous terrain of the Alps, stormy weather, and a raging torrent, although in nature those sights would have been unlikely to have been synchronous.
Corot continued to paint some exceptional skies far from the Campagna and later in his career. This nocturne, A Pond with Three Cows and a Crescent Moon, was completed around 1850.
Corot’s younger friend Henri Harpignies seems to have painted in the Campagna at some time, as he received his first medal at the Salon for an evening view of the countryside there. Although painted in France and using watercolour, this dawn View of Moulins from about 1850-60 is another superb sky.
By this time, other landscape painters were active outdoors, even along the French Channel coast, the cradle of Impressionism.