Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Plein Air Ancestors

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently remodeled its display of 19th century painting. The curators have brought a lot of gems out of storage and put them on permanent display in the Henry J. Heinz II Galleries.

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


Erik Bongers said...

Still some hesitation in this Met room : two pictures on top of each other, nicely lined up.
In The Antwerp "Museum voor Schone Kunsten" we have an even darker red room where the academic paintings are randomly stuffed up to the ceiling. Not best layout for viewing but still...
Pure 'salon' stuff !
Reminds me that tomorrow is last Wednesday of the month, which means free entry, and it's going to be a rainy day !
Now where's my top hat, cape and walking stick ?

Bao Pham said...

I literally dreamed of going there last night after reading your previous post. I live in Iowa, so it's not that big of a trip, but no real opportunity has come up yet. I hope to go soon though.
Thanks for the heads up on this, I'm pretty out of touch with the museum circle.

Bao Pham said...

Then I was at the Chicago art institute museum, some of the paintings were stacked pretty badly. One of them was a Bouguereau, I was pretty pissed to say the least. So I've yet to see a Bouguereau up close.

Mary Ann Archibald said...

Thanks for posting this and your comments on the work. It is a great virtual trip to the Met, hopefully, I'll get a chance to see it in person someday.

sylvia said...

How graceful from you, James to quote those wonderful artist as Gerome or Bouguereau to quote a few... In France, you are sent KO if you just dare.....

Thank you so much for so much beauty... Your paintings too.... so nice,

sylvia from the Riviera

Anonymous said...

I was kind of jealous to see that photo of you face to face with Gerome's "Arabs Crossing the Desert." I only recently discovered Gerome, and he quickly became one of my favorite painters. :)

Adam Cope said...

great post

btw, anyone interested in 'proto plein-airisme' should try & acquire a copy of peter galassi's 'corot' which has a good round-up of pre corot plein-airisme. The Valenciennes in the Louvre, Paris are just stunning. He was the first 'painting a day' plein-airist & IMO, remains the best.

i don't want to contradict you Slyvia from the Rivera, as there is doubtless a degree of truth in what you say about Gerôme & Bouguereau. but if you vist the Musée d'Orsay,Paris, both artists are well represented & hung in their rightful place as nineteenth century 'academic' painters (Corot & Manet are hung slightly to the right, Symbolist to the left & the Modernist are hung upstairs).

True, it might be the case in the Provinces that the clash between 'L'Art Contemporain' vs. 'L'Art Academique' is still framed through such a viewfinder, but such brou-ha shouldn't overly much concern a true artist whose task remains the same as ever.

Adam from the Dordogne, France