Among the highlights are four rooms with dozens of oil studies painted outdoors by the pioneers of plein-air painting in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Most of these artists were northern Europeans who flocked to Italy for the warmth and the golden light.
Here’s a stormy landscape near Rome, circa 1800, painted by Simon Denis (1755-1813). He was working quickly to capture a fleeting rainbow effect. His work preceded the era of photography, the Impressionists, the Hudson River School, and even Constable and Corot.
Denis was painting four decades before the invention of collapsible paint tubes. He had to either grind his pigments on location or carry prepared paints in pigs’ bladders obtained from the butcher.
Here is a view from the Quirinal Hill in Rome, 1800, also by Denis. He carefully rendered the distant town and the central rooftops. I’m guessing that he was working from the view out of his hotel window, and that he ran out of time.
The alley at right is unfinished, which gives a glimpse into his method. He blocked in the big planes first and probably intended to add windows and other details later.
Antoine Xavier Gabriel de Gazeau (French, 1801–1881), painted this on-the-spot study of the Gate to the Temple of Luxor in 1836. Drifting sand covers the collossal figures to chest height.
At the top of the building at right you can see his transparent block-in, with the lower half of the wall mostly covered with a semi-opaque second layer. I would speculate that this was painted in two sittings of about two hours each.
These paintings look like they were painted yesterday. One of the remarkable qualities of plein air work is that it escapes the conventional formulas of the artist’s own time. It takes every fiber of concentration to capture what you see when you’re face-to-face with nature. All the compositional formulas go out the window.
The Metropolitan Museum has brought a lot of other realist paintings back into the light, giving a much more balanced view of 19th century painting. There are paintings by Gerome, Repin, Leighton, Sorolla, Mucha, Bouguereau, and Bastien-Lepage. All these rooms were crowded and buzzing with energy and interest. At last the tide is turning. Thank you, Drue Heinz, Phillipe de Montebello and the Met curators!
Metropolitan Museum’s press release about the new installations. Link.
New York Times coverage, Link.
Article by A. Malafronte on the history of plein air painting, Link
Tomorrow: Bronze Weathering