`Light of Italy' Gives a Fine Airing to Landscape Works

Article excerpt

At first viewing, the National Gallery of Art's "In the Light of Italy: Corot And Early Open-air Painting" appears as a group of loosely painted oil landscape studies, all quite similar. They're small in scale and earth colored, with blues, greens, tans and browns; they show antique ruins around Rome and Naples and reveal the ever-changing moods of nature and its light.

When we look more carefully, however, we can see subtle and varied nuances of approach and technique. We can enjoy this exhibit in the same way that we delight in listening to Johann Sebastian Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier."

As with Bach, these 130 paintings by 48 artists explore one theme - here the Rome-Naples landscape of the late 1700s and early 1800s - with painterly changes from major to minor keys, dramatic rollicking "arpeggios" and softly muted, slow "legatos."

It was fashionable for neoclassic painters from all over Europe - France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Great Britain - to go to Italy and paint its ruins. It was part of the "grand tour" for painters, an important part of their education. But the two generations of artists who worked in Italy between 1780 and 1840 had a new purpose. They began to paint the Italian scenery out of doors, and "open-air," or "plein-air," painting was born.

French artists in Rome had been drawing Italian scenes since the mid-18th century. Now they began to paint nature with the spontaneity of the pencil sketches. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, on whom this exhibit focuses, brought the open-air movement to its maturity, with his emphasis on carefully structured forms that anticipated the way Paul Cezanne arranged space. The other painters would lead to the French Impressionist movement, with its breaking up of form with light and color, and to the beginning of the modern age. The new invention of photography also influenced these Italian landscapists.

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Two of the early 1780s "open-air" artists were the Frenchman Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819) and the Englishman Thomas Jones (1742-1803), well represented in the first galleries of the exhibit. Jones painted unusually fresh scenes of Naples in the 1780s. Instead of idealizing the scenes, as artists previously had done, Jones painted the streaked paint and peeling stucco of the old houses - architecture "with all the warts."

The 10 Valenciennes on view are astonishing, as they antedate Corot's oil studies by nearly a half-century and the open-air paintings of the Impressionists by almost a century. Valenciennes, whose student Achille-Etna Michallon later became Corot's teacher, codified the new landscape painting with sketchy, lovingly rendered familiar scenes such as Rome's "Colosseum," the "Ruins at the Villa Farnese" and the "Buildings at the Southwest End of the Palatine."

The emotionalism intensifies with the clouds and mists of the Monte Cavo mountaintop, dramatically romantic in the atmospheric embracing of rocks and village. Valenciennes' brooding "Ruins on a Plain at Twilight" looks forward to the wonderfully gloomy romanticism of Edward Pinkham Ryder. The works are all the more impressive because of the power achieved on such a tiny scale. The "Ruins" measures 6-9/16 inches high by 15 5/8 inches wide.

Valenciennes also wrote a detailed treatise in 1800 on the theory and practice of landscape painting, which became a manifesto for the other painters in Rome and which would radically change the course of European art.

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The early Corots in this exhibit, done during the artist's first Italian trip in 1825, are a revelation. Fresh, vivid, seemingly spontaneous, they are a sharp contrast to the later, hackneyed, silvery scenes for which Corot is better known.

He, like Valenciennes, would influence several generations of landscape painters. …