Corot in Italy: Open-Air Painting and the Classical-Landscape Tradition

By Thomas, Greg M. | Studies in Art Education, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Corot in Italy: Open-Air Painting and the Classical-Landscape Tradition


Thomas, Greg M., Studies in Art Education


Galassi, P. (1991). Corot in Italy: Open-Air Painting and the ClassicalLandscape Tradition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 258 pages. ISBN 0-300-04957-9 (Cloth), 0-300-06710-0 (Paper).

Reviewed by Greg M. Thomas

Purdue University

This book is about much more than Camille Corot's work in Italy. In demonstrating his central thesis-that Corot's great innovations in landscape painting grew out of the conventions of his academic art education-Peter Galassi writes two other histories. First, his book is a sweeping survey of an entire tradition of landscape painting in oils around 1800, a tradition that laid the groundwork for many subsequent innovations of Modernism. Second, and of particular relevance for art educators, it is by far the most in-depth study to date of how men trained to become artists in the early 19th century.

In re-creating the early history of outdoor oil painting, Galassi first explains, in chapter 1, the centrality of outdoor nature drawings in the theory and practice of the classical landscape tradition-the tradition established by the French painters Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain working in Italy in the 17th century. Galassi then describes how, in the 1780s, Neoclassical painters from northern Europe made the outdoor oil study an essential component of academic training, particularly in Italy. The aim of such studies was established by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, the most influential teacher and theorist of Neoclassical landscape. In his treatise of 1800, Valenciennes explained in great detail how to capture the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere through rapid outdoor oil sketches of the kind for which his own superbly subtle and spontaneous studies could serve as examples. But Valenciennes saw such empirical analysis only as a tool for the elaboration of synthetic, artificial compositions that could carry noble classical meanings.

Based on this theoretical interdependence of study and invention, Galassi argues in chapter 2 against the received idea of an opposition between progressive naturalism and conservative classicism in French art. He shows that around 1800, virtually all French landscapists imitated either 17th-century Franco-Italian models or 17th-century Dutch models, and he characterizes naturalistic outdoor painting as an inherent part of trying to revive these classical traditions. This Neoclassical impulse was further reinforced by a pervasive tourist culture in Italy, which is reconstructed in chapter 3. Empirical study became mixed up with view-making, and Galassi goes to great lengths to demonstrate that artists followed set itineraries and depicted canonical sites in an effort to realize the tourist desire to imbue every aspect of the Italian countryside with ancient associations.

While thus reconstituting the artistic goals underlying early outdoor painting, the book also builds up a rich appreciation of how men learned to make art. Oil studies were part of student training, and the Neoclassical context of chapter one clarifies how students were inculcated with Neoclassical values and vision. Chapter 2 becomes more specific, rigorously documenting the surprising extent to which students alternated between copying prints of standardized views and copying actual sites. And chapter 3, focusing on Italy's tourist culture, emphasizes that the coherence and mutual reinforcement of the artist community in Rome was essential in advancing landscape skills.

These first three chapters serve, as Galassi asserts at the outset, as a background to the fourth and final chapter. Here he draws on the contexts of the outdoor painting tradition and Neoclassical training to illuminate the book's ostensible main subject-Corot's oil studies from his first visit to Italy in 1825-28. …

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