Donald Short is an artist working in the UK

Chasing the light and other dilemmas of painting out of doors: Vernet versus Auerbach

This short essay is designed to support contextual research at AS/A2 level and was written to accompany an exhibition of landscape paintings at Canford School, Dorset and Magdalen College School, Oxford in the Fall of 2011.

The search after truth, peculiar to modern artists, which enables them to see nature and reproduce her, such as she appears to just and pure eyes, must lead them to adopt air almost exclusively as their medium, or at all events to habituate themselves to work in it freely and without restraint; there should at least be in the revival of such a medium, if nothing more, an incentive to a new manner of painting.
Stephane Mallarme.

Painting out of doors has its origins in the 17th century with the French painter, Claude Lorrain, who set about scientifically recording in paint the gradations of atmospheric tone in the countryside around Rome as a reference for his large-scale exhibition paintings. Claude Lorrain attracted a following and by 1666 a French Academy had been established in Rome, making it the official centre for outdoor painting, a distinction it would hold until the mid 19th Century. In France, outdoor painting was championed by Francois Deportes and Roger de Piles, the latter writing the influential, Cours de peinture par principe in 1708 ; while in England, Joshua Reynolds, and Benjamin West are known to have set an early example for later exponents of painting out of doors, such as John Constable and William Turner.
By the mid 18th century, the principle of the outdoor painted sketch as part of academic discipline was being formulated in France, and its greatest propagandist was the academician (and a disciple of Claude Lorraine) Joseph Vernet. Like Claude before him, Vernet asserted that in order to truthfully convey nature in studio paintings, one had to directly observe and record nature up close. None of Vernet’s sketches appear to have survived and he never published; it was therefore left to his finest pupil Pierre-Henri de Valencienne to be, in effect, Plato to Vernet’s Socrates, publishing in 1800, a monumental polemic called the Elemens de perspective practique, in which he asserted the moral and aesthetic superiority of what he termed the ‘historical landscape’ painting over other genres. Valencienne, like his teacher, first painted out of doors in the Roman countryside and included in his book a chapter advising students on painting en plein air, stating that two hours was the most time you had before the light changed drastically; although he advised that at the beginning and end of the day, a painter had no more than half an hour at best to capture the effect.
Since the Renaissance, artists had principally be concerned with form, in particular the human figure, and by the 19th century, academic teaching had codified the process of creating form into a series of developmental stages of painting, which all students were taught. But out of doors, time was literally of the essence, necessitating a different approach to creating a painting if an artist was to have any chance of capturing fleeting phenomena such as moving clouds, a fiery sunset or the sparkle of light on water. The transformative nature the landscape and the way light acted upon it now became the priority, and in doing so opened up a new set of aesthetic possibilities that would eventually lead to abstraction. Today, the comparison between the 18/19th Century out door sketch and the resulting exhibition painting, between informal and formal, ‘modernism’ and tradition, is often an invidious one. Modern artistic taste, recognises in the sketches of Valencienne and Corot, or most notably in this country, Constable, a democracy of sensation, an appealing free spirit, that is at once harnessed in their large exhibition paintings by the apparent tyranny of tradition and the market forces and state-sponsored patronage that did so much to perpetuate its stale existence. This is perhaps a little unfair as an artist has a right to make a living after all. What these commentators also fail to realise (not least because they are not painters) is that the cursory, immediate, expressive brushstroke that is a natural result of painting against the clock, does not always work on a large scale, especially if the imperative is, in fact, to convey a landscape. This tension between process and image is most obvious in the late landscapes of David Bomberg and his pupil Frank Auerbach, where the motif is consumed in an often confusing flurry of sensational mark making: in a triumph of art over substance. There is one notable exception, William Turner, whose work almost certainly influenced Claude Monet and whose outdoor watercolour studies (rather that his more conservative oil sketches), allowed him to successfully create similarly near abstract landscapes on a larger scale.
The historical landscape that Vernet and Valencienne has done so much to promote was officially sanctioned by the French Academy with the inauguration, in 1816, of a prize devoted solely to its production. Known as the Prix de Rome, its first recipient was appropriately Valencienne’s most talented pupil, Achille-Etna Michallon; and at this point, two important pedagogical lineages are established in the history of landscape painting, first to Michallon’s pupil Corot and from Corot to Pisarro and then from Pissarro to Cezanne – Corot also taught Degas who taught/advised Sickert, which leads us via Bomberg to Frank Auerbach who, against all the odds, on an unassuming once primrosed hillock above Regent’s Park, has done the most to keep empirical landscape painting alive today.
It wasn’t though until the mid 19th century before the immediacy and energy of the painted sketch began to be appreciated aesthetically in France; at which time, aided by a sympathetic art market that was beginning to establish independence from State, out door sketches began to be sold as works of art in themselves. The focus of this work had by now switched from the brilliant Roman countryside to the stygian forest of Fontainebleau, on the edge of Paris, where around the town of Barbizon, a collective of artists assembled around Corot and Rousseau. These artists were the precursors of the next generation who would become collectively known as the Impressionists and take landscape painting to a new and completely radical level, way beyond what Joseph Vernet could have imagined or intended; a journey that would eventually culminate the late landscapes of Cezanne, which inspired Braque and gave birth to Cubism.
The first landscape I painted out of doors was painted in the frigid grounds of Blenheim Palace, near Oxford in the winter of 1983. It was an artless catastrophe and an object lesson in exactly what not to do when painting out of doors. I trudged home at the end of a frustrating day, compressed by an overwhelming sense of having been defeated by something beyond my control, It was not just the medium that had defeated me but the process itself: a process with a particularly tricky component, the weather. Later as I warmed my frozen feet in front of the fire, I consoled myself with the notion that despite the disarray of colours and brush marks before me, my painting did at least look something like the view I had tried to paint; proving, if nothing else, that delusion is sometimes an artist’s only solace. I have been painting out of doors, on and off, ever since, not least because it is always an absorbing contest between me, the weather and even, I suppose, art history itself. It is also increases your sensitivity to light and its myriad variations and will, in time, improve your drawing skills.
It is, for me, akin to a musician practising his scales.

Feb 4, 05:58 PM by Donald Short