Painting landscapes from Rome to Paris

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), View of Rome (date not known), oil, 19.5 x 39 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

By the end of the eighteenth century, when Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes published his textbook on landscape painting, French artists had advanced the genre to a new level, ready for the Barbizon School and Impressionism to sweep the world. What’s a little odd is that landscape painting came to Paris from Antwerp via Rome. This article traces its circuitous journey.

The ‘Low Countries’, now the Netherlands and Belgium, saw early development of landscape painting during the sixteenth century, long before the southern Renaissance in Italy did. One of the exponents of this new genre was Paul Bril (c 1553/4–1626), who trained and started his career in Antwerp, but spent much of it in Rome. He moved to Italy in around 1582, when he was in his late twenties: fully trained, experienced as a Master in his own right, and seeking to develop and flourish with the rich commissions which could come from the Pope and other officers of the church.

Paul Bril (c 1553/4–1626), View of Bracciano (c 1622), oil on canvas, 74.5 x 163.6 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

Bril found a market for paintings such as his panoramic View of Bracciano (c 1622). Although strongly Italianate, it’s a painting ahead of its time: a fairly accurate 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 his coach with armed guard.

Bril taught a succession of students during his time in Rome, of whom the most (in)famous must be Agostino Tassi (1580–1644), who in turn taught the young Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682), whose original family name was Gellée. He had travelled from north-eastern France to Italy in his early teens, and ended up being employed in Tassi’s household as a servant and cook.

During his employment, Tassi taught Claude to draw and then paint, and moved him from the kitchen to work in his busy workshop, which was then very active making frescoes in palaces. Altogether, Claude was probably working 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.

Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682), Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum (c 1634), oil on canvas, 79.7 x 118.8 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

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 (below) from over thirty years earlier.

Paul Bril (c 1553/4–1626), View of the Roman Forum (1600), dimensions not known, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

The other founding master of French landscape painting was Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), who was born in Les Andelys but moved to Rome in 1624, where he painted for much of his career.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Abduction of the Sabine Women (c 1634-35), oil on canvas, 154.6 x 209.9 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

In his early career, Poussin was an outstanding figurative painter who specialised in classical narrative, such as his famous Abduction of the Sabine Women (c 1634-35). It’s set against the historical background of the Capitoline Hill and the Tarpeian Rock, because of their importance in the narrative. As the bearded figure of Romulus stands overseeing the abduction, the hill and its precipitous cliffs dominate the distance.

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Calm (c 1651), oil on canvas, 97 x 131 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.
Nicolas Poussin (1694-1665), Landscape with a Calm (c 1651), oil on canvas, 97 x 131 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Landscape with a Calm from about 1651 is one of Poussin’s late pure landscape paintings, of a view which never existed except in the artist’s imagination, although there’s something familiar about each of the elements within it. Like an Advent calendar, it contains scattered scenes which the viewer is tempted to try to construct into a coherent narrative, but are probably all part of the painting’s mode.

Next in the chain comes Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714–1789), the senior of a whole family of artists, of whom his son Horace Vernet is probably the best-known today. He was born in Avignon in France, and set off for Rome to study painting in 1734. There he quickly learned to paint maritime subjects to a high standard, establishing himself a reputation which extended back to Paris. In 1753, he was given the royal command to paint a series of works showing the seaports of France, which he continued well into the 1760s.

Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714–1789), A Mountain Landscape with an Approaching Storm (1775), oil on canvas, 164 x 262 cm, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Vernet’s work was by no means confined to the coast. In 1775, for instance, he painted this view of A Mountain Landscape with an Approaching Storm, which combines narrative elements from his earlier work in a setting reminiscent of Tivoli.

Unlike the earlier idealised landscapes of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, Vernet’s landscapes have a close resemblance to real geographical locations, such as Tivoli. They are consistent with the claim that he sketched in oils in front of the motif, and that it was he who advised Valenciennes to adopt the practice.

Several art historians consider that Vernet and Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819) met in Paris in 1781-82, and it was then that Vernet introduced Valenciennes to the practice of plein air oil sketching. Direct evidence is sadly lacking: Vernet had a contemporary reputation as a plein air painter, but not one of those oil sketches has survived. Instead, we only have his finished works from the studio as evidence that he must, at some stage in his workflow, have painted directly from nature.

Valenciennes was born in the large city of Toulouse, in the south-west of France towards the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. He trained locally before being sponsored financially to make his first trip to Rome in 1769. By the early 1770s, he was back in France, probably in Paris, where he trained further in the studio of Gabriel François Doyen, a history painter.

In 1777, Valenciennes returned to Italy, where he probably remained until 1781. He returned to paint in the Roman Campagna between about 1782-85, during which he started to amass a personal image library of oil sketches. He then used those to compose finished landscape paintings in his studio.

In 1787, Valenciennes was elected to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris. He was later appointed Professor of Perspective at the Académie, and promoted the cause of landscape painting to the point where, in 1816, it was incorporated in the Prix de Rome.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), Classical Landscape with Figures and Sculpture (1788), oil on panel, 28.8 x 41 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Valenciennes’ finished works develop from the idealised landscapes of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. Classical Landscape with Figures and Sculpture from 1788 shows a Mediterranean coastal view with an unusual echo in the posture of the sculpture at the right and a woman standing at the left. However the human figure is stripped to the waist and talking to a man (probably) who is seated.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), Farm Buildings at the Villa Farnese: the Two Poplar Trees (1780), oil on paper on cardbord, 25 x 38 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

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’s 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.

Tomorrow I will show some of the paintings of the artist who forms the next link in this chain, Achille Etna Michallon (1796–1822).