French painters’ engagement with nature is illustrated in an exhibition at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum entitled “Valenciennes, Daubigny, and the Origins of French Landscape Painting,” on view September 7-December 12. The exhibition traces the depiction of landscape from the late Renaissance when it first emerged from the background of narrative representation to the eve of Impressionism in the Nineteenth Century.
During the course of the exhibition, several events are scheduled, beginning with the official opening on September 23, at 7 pm, when co-curator Michael Marlais, James M. Gillespie Professor of Art at Colby College, will present a lecture, “The Pond at Optevoz and a Moment in French Realism,” in Gamble Auditorium. A reception will follow with music by the Euridice Ensembles.
Using carefully selected paintings, oil sketches, drawings and prints, Marlais and co-curators, John Varriano, Idella Plimpton Kendall Professor of Art History at Mount Holyoke College, and Wendy Watson, the museum’s curator, show the many choices French artists faced as they made their way through the rural landscape over the course of three centuries.
This exhibition and its catalog, written by the co-curators, make an important contribution to the scholarship of French landscape painting with a revealing new look at salient moments in its history. The installation shows the difference between classicism and naturalism as stylistic developments in French art while demonstrating both the changes from one period to the other and the continuity between them.
For a large portion of the three centuries represented, the classical idiom captured and sustained artists’ imaginations. Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, the “father” of French neoclassical landscape painting, constituted a milestone in the itinerary. Critic C.P. Landon wrote of him in 1808: “One owes to this able master not only pictures that are majestic and truly poetic in style, but also several young artists worthy of following in his footsteps. Since [his] return to France, the art of landscape has been ennobled, one could say regenerated.” A significant segment of this show focuses on an analysis of his “Classical Greek Landscape with Girls Sacrificing their Hair to Diana.” Painted in 1790, this lyrical work is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Eventually French landscape painters began to question the authority of the classical tradition. In 1854 Charles Franois Daubigny wrote to Geoffrey-Dechaume: “I am obsessed with my ideas; the countryside around Optevoz has never been so beautiful and I am sure that I will do well here.” His “Water’s Edge, Optevoz,” created in 1856, introduces both a new empiricism and a freshly conceived regional chauvinism to the formulas the artist had learned as a student and perfected during his own Italian sojourn. Daubigny’s painting, a gift to the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in 1981, provides a second focus to the exhibition and elucidates another milestone along the path of one of France’s most adventurous artistic journeys.
The exhibition includes a variety of works of art from the schools of Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorrain, as well as Jean-Victor Bertin, Jean-Joseph Bidauld, Jean-Charles Rmond, Jean-Antoine Constantin, Hubert Robert, Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, Narcisse-Virgilio Diaz, Henri Harpignies and others. A selection of prints by Daubigny and Adolphe Appian demonstrates the notable contribution printmaking made to landscape representation in mid-Nineteenth Century France. Explanatory wall text and illustrative material, such as photographs, treatises on landscape, vintage postcards and maps, are included.
Thursday, September 30, at 4:30 pm, in the Weissman Gallery, exhibition co-curator Varriano will give a talk on “The Geography of French Landscape Painting before Valenciennes.”
Thursday, October 14, at 4:30 pm, there will be a lecture in the Gamble Auditorium entitled “An Ecological Read of the Ponds at Optevoz” by Thomas Millette, associate professor of geography and director of the Center for Environmental Literacy at Mount Holyoke College.
Thursday, October 28, at 4:30 pm in the Weissman Gallery museum curator Watson will talk about “Painting from Nature: The Real and the Ideal in French Neoclassical Landscape.”
The Mount Holyoke College Art Museum is open Tuesday-Friday, 11 am to 5 pm and weekends, 1 to 5 pm. Admission is free; donations are welcome.
For information, mtholyoke. edu/go/artmuseum or 413-538-2245.