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A survey of open-air Italian landscapes, 1780-1830, explores imagery, techniques and aims

“Un paese incantato" comes to London

“Un paese incantato: Italia dipinta da Thomas Jones a Corot” is the most wide-ranging survey yet mounted of the open-air landscapes produced in Italy in the period 1780-1830.

The exhibition, previously seen at the Grand Palais in Paris, is truly international in scope: it includes work not only by the French artists generally regarded as having laid the foundations of the landscape sketch both in theory and in practice, such as Valenciennes and Corot, but also a host of less well known figures from England, Germany, Switzerland and the Low Countries. Casting the net wider still, the selection embraces work by Swedish artists Søderberg and Palm and the Russians Schtschedrin and Ivanov.

Some of this territory has become more familiar in recent years through the work of Peter Galassi (in both Before photography, 1981 and the magisterial Corot in Italy, 1991) and Philip Conisbee (Painting from nature, 1980 and, most recently, the exhibition “In the light of Italy”, National Gallery of Art Washington DC, 1996), among others.

The organisers of the current exhibition, headed by Anna Ottani Cavina of the University of Bologna, in their desire to do justice to the diversity of the artists, imagery and techniques involved, have opted for a multi-layered approach.

Indeed, on this showing, one would have to conclude that, amidst the many different groupings and inter-relationships represented in this international caucus, the works have a tendency to fragment, rather than to cohere. Seeing such a large cross-section together, it is the differences, rather than the similarities, which are most striking.

One of the most important contributions of the exhibition to our understanding of the phenomenon of open-air sketching in Italy is the admission of works painted in watercolour, not solely the oils more commonly associated with this trend. This allows for the inclusion of marvellous works by Francis Towne and also Giovan Battista Lusieri, a rare Italian in a field populated—or perhaps overrun would be more accurate—largely by foreigners.

The watercolours raise a further important issue surrounding the artists’ aims and intentions, for while Towne’s were executed within a brief timespan of a couple of hours, according to principles later enshrined in Valencienne’s Treatise, Lusieri’s huge and extraordinarily detailed panoramas took days, if not weeks, to complete; yet they too, the artist insisted, were made entirely in the open air.

Similar questions are prompted by a hang which places Valenciennes and Thomas Jones in close proximity. Ever since the first, revelatory exhibition of Jones’s tiny oil studies in 1970, art historians have pondered whether these two artists, each developing his own individual approach to working in oils out of doors during the same years, the early 1780s, could have met.

Here, we see Valenciennes working against the clock, his strong, separate brushstrokes blurring into one another as he rises to the challenge of completing his image—and its all-important disposition of light and shadow—in a single sitting. Jones, in contrast, is more akin to Lusieri: crisp, precise, razor-sharp.

If these artists mark the divergent trends present at the dawn of this period, some compressing, some expanding the time taken to paint a single work, the organisers give us a further instance of the continuing breadth of practice in a little group of views of Trinità dei Monti in Rome, made from the windows of the Villa Medici, home of the French Academy. Louis Dupré, in Rome around 1820, is thoroughly neo-Classical, sharply delineating form and colour against an intense blue sky; Corot, in a work which remains unfinished, but which was surely begun on the spot, is softer, broader, but acutely sensitive to the way the afternoon light creates patches of brilliant white as it glances off the facades of distant, hardly distinguishable, buildings. Did Corot, having chosen a different support from the paper he usually preferred for brisk open-air studies, expect to return to this canvas for further sessions, as Dupré has obviously done?

The confrontation of the two works highlights the extent to which, the normative influence of Valenciennes notwithstanding, open-air painting was essentially experimental, and a single problem may have several solutions, even in the hands of the same artist.

The exhibition’s occasional groupings of different artists’ depictions of the same location thus, on one level, familiarise the viewer with key elements of the topography, but, crucially, also draw attention to technique and the study of light as equally essential elements of the artistic endeavour.

Both Dupré and Corot made their paintings looking through an open window, creating a deliberate hybrid of the studio work and the open-air study. One is reminded of Richard Wilson’s first lesson in landscape painting from Zuccarelli, which was, similarly, to depict the view from his studio window in Venice. The shape of the opening is both a formal constraint and the initiator of accidental configurations; Jones, Wilson’s pupil, makes much of this interplay in his studies of buildings in Naples. Though several artists took advantage of the window as a catalyst for formal invention, it is still a shock to find the frame actually represented in the painting, as we do with Dahl’s view of Vesuvius. The image serves as a timely reminder of the subtle blend of artifice and spontaneity always present in these works.

“Un paese incantato” will delight its audience by the sheer wealth and variety of the material gathered together, much of it unfamiliar. If it raises more questions than it answers, and leaves one longing to see more work by many of the 79 artists represented, this may be regarded as a measure of its success.

“Un paese incantato: Italia dipinta da Thomas Jones a Corot”, Museo Civico Palazzo del Tè, viale del Tè, 46100 Mantova, % +39 0376 365886 (1 September to 16 December). The catalogue is by Anna Ottani Cavina (ed.), (Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris and Electa, Milan, 2001), 386 pp, 83 b/w ills, 114 col. ills, £33, L100,362, FFr340 (pb) ISBN 2711841960

Originally appared in The Art Newspaper as 'But what do they have in common?'