Seeing the Light Exhibit: When painters moved outdoors, it was a breath of fresh air for art. A National Gallery show of 130 works demonstrates just what happened.

August 18, 1996|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The 48 artists included in the exhibit "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting" came to Italy to study light.

At first, they studied light itself. Then they studied light as it corresponded to feelings. They recorded their impressions with quick brush strokes and led the way for Degas, Cezanne and the impressionists.

But the open-air movement was more than a study, more than a footnote to a page in art history. There is so much more to be seen in these 130 evocative works, painted between 1780 and 1840, now on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art.

Looking at these paintings, one feels a sense of connection: from the ephemeral cloud studies by Belgian artist Simon Denis (1755-1812); to the concrete block and brick backyards in Naples by British artist Thomas Jones (1742-1803); to the evocative landscapes of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875), one of the greatest landscape painters of the 19th century.

The first painting in the exhibit, "Tivoli," by British painter Richard Wilson (1713-1782), illustrates the open-air tradition. An artist has set his easel on a high cliff; he looks across the waterfalls at dawn to the ruin of an ancient temple. He has carried his paintbox and folding stool with him. Stretching into the distance is a tan and orange hillside, a valley dotted with green grass and trees. Above is a silvery-blue sky and white clouds catching an even whiter light in a wash of orange.

Before the 1780s, artists routinely painted in their studios. If they painted nature, they painted from memory and imagination. But in the late 18th century, artists began to teach students to paint out-of-doors, making quick pencil sketches and painting with oils directly on paper. This is the work featured in the present exhibit.

French, British and German artists, such as Claude-Joseph Vernet, Thomas Jones and Carl Blechen, were drawn to Italy by the quality of light and by the climate.

Most of the work in this exhibit was painted in Rome, Campagna, the Sabine Hills and Naples.

Magnificent subjects

In Italy, artists studied technique with great masters. French landscape painter and theorist Pierre-Henri De Valenciennes, for example, painted and taught in Italy.

Italy also provided the magnificent Roman ruins, the Colosseum and the temples as subjects for paintings.

Open-air artists kept their sketches in the studio to be used as reference and did not consider the work finished -- often it was literally unfinished. "Landscape near Subiaco" by German artist Johann Martin Von Rohden (1778-1868) is a good example. The background shows a gray mist rising from the purple and tan mountains into the sky. The foreground shows green rounded tree shapes and yellowed paper on which a house and more tree shapes have been drawn, but not yet painted. There is a touching quality to such unfinished work by a master painter.

Some of the paintings in this exhibit are quick notations probably done in one sitting, such as "The Ponte Nomentano near Rome," by German artist Ernest Fries (1801-33), a brushy and informal study of light and atmosphere, blues and tans, with three leaf studies in the foreground. Others, such as "Forest Interior With -- an Artist," by French artist Andre Giroux (1801-79), are more elaborate and required several sittings.

The exhibit includes paintings by De Valenciennes, one of the originators of the outdoor landscape movement and a major influence on the paintings of Corot. De Valenciennes' "Villa near Rome" and Corot's "View of the Roman Campagna" show similar scenes. The former is a picture of summer sunlight and shadows filtering through blue sky and cream-colored clouds above a house in the green countryside. The latter is Corot's version of the same house from a different angle, in a different light, and in a different season: winter. The white and yellow sky is heavy with dark clouds. The grass is brown and tan; the surrounding hills are gray.

The 20 Corot pictures here were painted in the 1820s. Most of them are landscapes showing a distant line of hills behind two hills of different heights. A gray-blue light bathes the hills, as in "Olevano, La Serpentara," changing the earth into green, red and tan.

The sky -- which is the focal point of this painting and all the work here -- is white, soft yellow, and blue. Because the sky was a constantly changing source of light, it inspired Corot and the rest of these artists, making their subject not so much light as it was vision.

Goethe's words

The German poet Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832), who visited Italy in the 1780s and whose work is quoted in the exhibit, puts this vision into words:

Do you know the land where the lemon trees blossom,

where the golden oranges glow in the dark foliage,

a soft wind blows from the blue sky

and the myrtle stands silent and the bay tree is tall? Do you know it perhaps?"

L After seeing this informative exhibit, one would say, "yes."

Art Review

What: "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting"

Where: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue Northwest, Washington

When: Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Through Sept. 2. Free

Call: (202) 842-6690

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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