Atmospheric Landscapes Radiate Light and Lure of Italy

National Gallery of Art displays works painted by Corot and his European peers from 1780 to 1840

If there was one clear lesson from the Vermeer show at the National Gallery of Art here this past winter, it was that less can be more.

With only a handful of paintings on display - some 23 in all - it was apparent from the long lines and phone calls from people seeking tickets that there were at least as many who wanted to get in as those who actually did.

"In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting" - a new show occupying some of the same rooms as Vermeer - suggests in yet another way that less is more. These are all smaller works - many of them executed as preliminary studies for larger, more "important" paintings.

Indeed, none of the 130 paintings in the show was ever publicly exhibited, or for that matter, sold, in the artists' lifetimes. In fact, many of these paintings were not even known to exist until well into the 20th century, and they were only discovered when scholars, art dealers, or estate executors were examining in more detail the larger oeuvre of the artists represented.

But what a treat these diminutive landscapes are! Bright, well-composed, colorful, restrained, they bespeak the manners of a more genteel age - the period between 1780 and 1840, when all the works in the show were created.

As curator Philip Connisbee points out, they also brilliantly illuminate the period during which European painters began to break new ground in the landscape tradition. By responding to the views before them with an immediacy that belied the formalism then prevalent in academic circles, Jean-Baptise-Camille-Corot and his European contemporaries asserted the growing importance of landscape in the rigidly prescribed categorical hierarchy of art.

Like still-life painting, landscape was near the bottom of the hierarchy, even late in the 18th century, with portraiture and historical subjects considered to be far superior. The reason, Dr. Connisbee explains, had to do with nature: "lowly nature was their subject, and their basis in perception was contradictory to the more cerebral, conceptual approach of ideal, imaginative art, which was invested with a moral dimension."

Who of Corot's time could have imagined that a "lowly" still life such as Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" would in 1987 sell at auction for some $36 million or that his "Irises" would fetch more than $49 million later in the year?

Corot is certainly the best-known of the 48 artists represented here. But there are some true delights in store for those who know Corot only by his later, more-famous works or are strangers to his European contemporaries who went to Italy to paint outdoors - among them Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (a Frenchman whose students included two men who eventually taught Corot), Simon Denis (Belgium), Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (Denmark), Leopold Robert (Switzerland), Johann Joachim Faber (Germany), and Thomas Jones (Wales).

From the moment you enter the first room and encounter the architectonics of Thomas Jones's elegant Neapolitan ruins, you are hooked. Bathed in the warm sunlight, Jones's rugged, scarred buildings project the fateful nobility of man imposing his will on nature: We can design and make buildings, but our efforts, impressive as they are, pale in contrast to nature's imposing variety and vast creative capacity.

In the same small room are 10 of Valenciennes's gems - scenes along the Palatine, at the Villa Farnese and the Villa Borghese, and a pair of paintings of luminous mists haunting the mountaintop village of Rocca di Papa.

The two Rocca di Papa studies, which apparently were executed within minutes of each other, will remind some of the strategy Monet adopted much later in the century in his monumental series of paintings done on a single subject - the Rouen Cathedral and the hayricks, for example - at different times of the day or during different seasons.

What makes these landscapes so compelling to the modern viewer is the subject matter itself - the Italian countryside around and to the north of Rome.

The attractions of the area were many: the inherent beauty of the country, with its lush foliage, rolling hills, and dramatic mountains; the rare quality of its clear, limpid light; the mythic appeal of the classical ruins that said as much about the lure of Italy for ancient courtiers and power-mongers as it does about the region's enduring charm for tourists and artists alike.

What also makes these works so alluring is that because they were all executed outdoors, there are unexpected moments of stunning atmospheric effects along with palpable evidence of brushwork that is deft rather than studied.

Part of that appeal, too, resides in the direct focus of the work. That is, instead of being drawn into the more complex aspects of the composition, the artist would concentrate on one aspect - the atmospherics, perhaps, or the various perspectives that he could select, or details of topography that could be refined in the finished work.

And then there are the harmonic colors and the varying levels of detail - sometimes impressionistic, other times almost photographically real.

But always there is the interplay of light and texture, a mixture that invites contemplation and exudes pure delight.

The sumptuous catalog - "must reading" for anyone who wants to recapture the feel of this exhibition in the quiet repose of his or her study - makes it clear that those of us raised on Impressionism may wrongly assume that plein-air painting was standard fare and that landscapists always painted directly from nature.

In fact, classical academy training was quite the opposite. While some sketching was done outdoors by budding art students, the practice was intended to exercise (and presumably improve) one's drawing ability so that the artist could return to his studio and improve upon nature scenes with the elegance and rigor that classical restraint demanded.

My late uncle Jerry once said that Mozart never wrote a false note. Someone who knows a lot more about music than I do might disagree with that. But you get the point.

It's the same with "In the Light of Italy": There's a sense of balance, harmony, a cheerful optimism in these gorgeous little landscapes that paved the way for the spectacular upsurge of landscape painting in the 19th century - all across Europe and even in America with the Barbizon painters, the Impressionists, the Dsseldorf school and the Hudson River schools.

As narrowly circumscribed as they are, the paintings in this show recall a line from Corot's direct contemporary, the poet John Keats: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

* 'In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting,' which will be on display at the National Gallery of Art through Sept. 2, was organized by the National Gallery and the Brooklyn Museum, where it will be on view Oct. 11-Jan. 12, 1997, and in association with the St. Louis Art Museum, where it will be on view Feb. 21-May 18, 1997.

The exhibition was made possible by a grant from the Florence Gould Foundation. The exhibition catalog, published by the National Gallery, is being distributed by the Yale University Press and is priced at $27 in softcover and $50 in hardback.

THE IMPACT OF EARLY OPEN-AIR PAINTING

In 1980, about a year before the blockbuster exhibition "American Light" went on view at the National Gallery of Art, one of the paintings featured in that brilliant survey of 19th-century American landscapes, Frederick Edwin Church's long-lost "The Icebergs," had been miraculously rediscovered in England. It promptly went on the market and sold at auction for some $2.75 million. I remember thinking that the gigantic painting - an oil on canvas nearly 10 by five feet - was far less impressive than many of the other 25 works by Church in the exhibition, almost all of them smaller. In 1978, a traveling exhibition of the oil sketches of Church had been organized by Theodore Stebbins Jr. for the Smithsonian Institution, and I remember being blown away by these.

What made these smaller sketches so appealing was their evident fascination with light and Church's loose brushwork, which reflected a spontaneity that was missing in the far-too-ponderous larger, indoor painting. Even some of the so-called "unfinished" sketches seemed to be more successful, again, more expressive of nature recorded on the spot - what Stebbins would very aptly call "close observation" (the short title of that exhibition).

Clearly, those peripatetic souls who set up their easels among the sun-drenched foothills of the Italian campagna two centuries ago were onto something big.

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