Between 1800 and 1900, French landscape painting underwent a remarkable transformation from a minor genre rooted in classical traditions to a primary vehicle for artistic experimentation. Some of the most important trends in the development of modernist art, such as the elevation of contemporary subjects, the rejection of illusionism, and the emphasis on the act of painting, first emerged in the landscapes of this era.
Because depictions of flora and fauna neither relate learned tales nor require knowledge of human anatomy, landscape ranked near the bottom of the hierarchy of genres endorsed by France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Throughout this period, landscapists seeking to elevate their status often followed the lead of Claude Lorrain (1978.205), the French-born painter of the seventeenth century who settled in Rome. He ennobled his paintings of the Roman countryside with narrative references to the biblical or classical past, and imposed an idealized vision of balance and harmony on the world before him. This emphasis on timeless landscapes augmented with historical vignettes persisted into the first decades of the nineteenth century, when the Neoclassical landscape painter Pierre Henri de Valenciennes worked within the Academy to establish a Prix de Rome honoring “historical landscape” painting, first awarded in 1817. Valenciennes’ theoretical and practical discourse on the subject, Elémens de perspective pratique à l’usage des artistes (Elements of Practical Perspective for Artists, 1799–1800), remained the most influential treatise on landscape painting for decades.
In the 1830s, a group of painters who settled in Barbizon, near the Fontainebleau Forest, became the first generation of French artists to reject idealized Italianate scenes in favor of naturalistic observations of their native land. Painters including Charles-François Daubigny (64.149.6) and Pierre-Étienne Rousseau (96.27) left their studios behind to sketch directly from nature (en plein air). In the 1850s, Daubigny constructed a floating studio on a small boat which he sailed along the Seine and Oise rivers in order to capture unrivaled views of their banks. Another hub of plein-air painting emerged in Normandy, along the English Channel, in the 1850s. There, Eugène Boudin (2003.20.2) painted scenes of well-heeled vacationers enjoying the beaches at Deauville and Trouville, and took the young Claude Monet under his wing after seeing his caricatures in a local shop window.
The next generation of forward-looking landscape painters, who adopted the name Impressionists in 1877, used this plein-air approach to capture scenes of modern life in urban and suburban settings. Setting up their easels in Paris and its suburbs, Monet (2001.202.5), Auguste Renoir (1974.356.32), and their colleagues eroded their predecessors’ distinctions between sketch and finished work by creating deliberately informal compositions with loose strokes of unmodulated color. They abandoned traditional techniques of perspective, chiaroscuro, and modeling in order to record their experiences as directly as possible. Even their most heavily worked paintings retain the appearance of spontaneity.
Though Monet is the quintessential Impressionist, his series paintings (29.100.109) of the 1890s exhibit an interest in perceptual and artistic processes generally associated with the Post-Impressionists. Depicting the same sites again and again at different times of day and under varying weather conditions, Monet emphasized how optical effects altered his perception of the world. The Post-Impressionists, including artists as diverse as Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, and Paul Signac, did not exhibit together and were never a unified group, but they shared a commitment to exploring the mechanisms of artmaking. Thus, Cézanne’s more than sixty renderings of Mont Sainte-Victoire (29.100.64), near his native Aix-en-Provence, call attention to the act of representing three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface by dividing the mountain into innumerable flat, rectangular planes created by clearly discernible brushstrokes. While Cézanne emphasized surface and structure, the Neo-Impressionists Seurat and Signac stressed the role of color. Works like Signac’s View of Collioure (1887; 1975.1.208) offer landscapes created with no lines, but only dots of pure, contrasting colors placed next to each other. Inspired by contemporary color theories, the Neo-Impressionists believed colors appeared more vibrant if mixed by the viewer’s eyes rather than on the artist’s palette. If the century opened with Neoclassical landscapes telling ancient tales set in distant lands, it closed with local scenes painted in the most experimental styles of the day.
Auricchio, Laura. “The Transformation of Landscape Painting in France.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lafr/hd_lafr.htm (October 2004)
Shackelford, George T. M., and Fronia E. Wissman. Impressions of Light: The French Landscape from Corot to Monet. Exhibition catalogue. Boston: MFA Publications, 2002.