In the north of Europe, the seventeenth century brought a great many realist landscapes, particularly during the Dutch Golden Age. Landscape painters in the south of Europe followed a similar trend, although as I’ve shown in the paintings of Nicolas Poussin, many still contained narrative scenes in the foreground, and idealised rather than real scenery.
One of the key figures in this change in the south was the Flemish artist Paul Bril, who moved to Rome around 1582. Although he found plenty of demand for mythological scenes, he also painted some pure landscapes.
His superb View of the Roman Forum from 1600 shows livestock wandering across what had been the very centre of life in classical Rome, with the remaining columns of the temples of Castor and Pollux, and Hadrian’s Basilica. Bril’s figures are lifelike, and engaged in everyday activities – excellent staffage which brings the whole view to life.
His composition follows van Mander’s guidelines, which weren’t published until four years later, and uses repoussoir to frame the image and give it depth. However, its distant view isn’t central, being shifted well to the right.
His panoramic View of Bracciano from about 1622 is very Italianate, but a painting ahead of its time. It’s a fairly faithful depiction of a real place, with all sorts of fascinating little scenes within it, like the young boy doffing his hat to the passing dignitary in their coach with an armed guard.
Bril balances this view between its subject on the left, and the deep view over the town’s volcanic lake on the right, where there’s greater foreground action in the form of the approaching coach. This asymmetric and less formal balance helps make it look more faithful to reality, and less an artificial construction.
It’s thought that one of Bril’s pupils when he was in Rome was Agostino Tassi, who in turn taught a landscape artist who was to prove one of the greatest in the European canon alongside Poussin. Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682), whose original family name was Gellée, travelled to Italy in his early teens (he may have been orphaned, although there is dispute over that), and ended up being employed in Tassi’s household as a servant and cook.
During his employment with Tassi, the artist taught Claude to draw and then paint, and moved him from the kitchen to his busy workshop, which was then very active making frescoes in palaces. Altogether, Claude probably worked there between about 1622-25. After further training, perhaps back in the Vosges (then part of the Duchy of Lorraine), Claude returned to Rome to paint in his own right in about 1626 or 1627 – just after the death there of Paul Bril.
One of Claude’s early paintings shows an almost uncanny link with Bril: Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum from about 1634. Compare that with Bril’s View of the Roman Forum from over thirty years earlier. Claude opts for repoussoir only on the right, and lights his version richly. Otherwise his composition is similar.
By the end of the 1630s, Claude’s reputation was made. Like Poussin, Claude drew and sketched in front of the motif, a practice he showed in An Artist Studying from Nature (1639). This is another asymmetric and informal view, which reverses the composition of Bril’s View of Bracciano, putting the castle on the right to balance the foreground and distance on the left. Once again, Claude bathes it with rich golden light.
Of course paintings like his Landscape with Nymph and Satyr Dancing (1641) were not made outdoors, but assembled from his library of sketches which were. This is a good example of van Mander’s principles at work again, with the group of figures in the centre foreground, low so that they don’t distract from the more distant view along the coast of an estuary.
Claude does seem to have tipped his hat in the direction of his master Tassi in his maritime paintings, such as the Embarkation of St Paula. This follows the format for which Claude is most famous: a view along a river opening out to the distant sea, with towering classical buildings on both banks, giving it great depth and drawing the eye from its foreground figures to the low sun. Unlike the majority of landscape paintings, Claude orientates his canvas into the ‘portrait’ mode to accommodate the buildings.
As Claude was making his reputation in Rome, a Spanish artist visited and initiated the next revolution in landscape painting which was to have major impact on composition.
It was probably during Diego Velázquez’s first visit to Rome in 1630 that he became one of the first, if not the first, painter to make faithful oil sketches in front of his motif, the grounds of the Villa Medici.
These two pioneering paintings show the new challenge to landscape composition. If an artist is going to depict what they see in front of them, composition takes place in the selection of the point of view relative to the landscape to be painted. Once the artist has chosen where and what to paint, its composition is fixed.
Plein air oil sketching wasn’t formally described or recommended as a practice until Roger de Piles’ book Cours de Peinture was published in 1708. 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 none has survived.
Although many of Claude-Joseph Vernet’s landscapes are idealised and contain narrative figures, in 1753 he was commissioned – or rather commanded – to paint landscape views of French seaports, which are generally faithful and finely detailed. He painted this late view of Dieppe Harbour complete with its many detailed ships and people in 1765, and its composition is set by the view he chose, although this finished version was clearly painted in the studio.
It was at Vernet’s suggestion that the young Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes made copious oil sketches 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.
Valenciennes painted this magnificent View of Rome in front of the motif during that period. 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’.
Thanks to his extensive library of oil sketches, Valenciennes was able to bring a new impression of realism to his finished landscape paintings, such as his Classical Landscape with Figures Drinking by a Fountain from 1806. Although founded on several of his oil sketches, all Valenciennes’ finished paintings appear to show composite idealised landscapes, much in the way that Poussin’s do. The final phase of this revolution in landscape composition was already on its way, though, in England.