Plein air. From Corot to Monet: The birth of Impressionism (1860-74)

To capture a visual sensation, the artist must forego the precision of drawing and emphasise the effects of shadow and light. In the 1860s, most of the future Impressionists took up the challenge of the great outdoors, but it was Claude Monet who most aptly embodied the outdoor painter. He worked alongside Eugène Boudin before meeting Johan Barthold Jongkind, who completed Monet's initiation into working directly on the subject.

Italian Landscape seen through a Skylight (C. 1856-1859) by Edgar DegasMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

The young Edgar Degas completed his artistic education with a long stay in Italy, stopping first in Naples.

Shortly after his arrival in 1856, he produced this admirable study on paper in the purest tradition of Corot, painted on the spot from a skylight in Castel Sant'Elmo.

After Naples, the painter travelled to Rome in 1857; there, he rubbed shoulders with the residents of Villa Medici, and he met Gustave Moreau there the following year. In 1858, he stayed in Florence with his aunt Laure Bellelli, then in Venice. During this trip, he studied works from Antiquity and the Renaissance and painted some studies from nature. But he very rarely repeated the experience, and the landscapes he created thereafter were inspired by fleeting memories or visions.

On the Slopes of Vesuvius (III) (1871/1872) by Giuseppe de NittisMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

The painter Giuseppe De Nittis, founder of the School of Resina, a group of landscape painters based near Naples, was heavily influenced by the experiences of the Macchiaioli group. Around 1860, De Nittis thus declared: "I sometimes stayed, happy under the downpours. The atmosphere, you see...I know it well. I had to paint it. I know all the colours, all the secrets of nature, the air and the sky. Oh! The sky! I have made paintings of it! Nothing but skies with beautiful clouds! You see, I am very close to nature. I love it! It has given me joy, joy! " (Giuseppe De Nittis, "Notes et souvenirs du peintre Joseph de Nittis", Paris, former Maison Quantin, Librairies-Imprimeries Réunies May et Motteroz, 1895)

Twelve Studies of Vesuvius (1872/1872) by Giuseppe De NittisGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Having been living in France since 1868, De Nittis was invited by Edgar Degas to participate in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. A friend of Gustave Caillebotte, he met up with the latter during his stay in Naples in 1872. That year, De Nittis explored the slopes of the volcano, where he painted a series of studies from nature.

This current view of Vesuvius today still bears witness to the landscape painted by De Nittis.

A Road in Naples (1872/1873) by Gustave CaillebotteMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

As for Caillebotte, he painted the ruins of Pompeii against the backdrop of Vesuvius. He probably depicted his friend De Nittis here, hidden behind the frame of a canvas laying on a horse-drawn carriage, with the volcano in the background.

Antwerp (1866-08-26) by Johan Barthold JongkindMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

The Dutch painter Johan Barthold Jongkind arrived in Paris in 1846, after having begun his apprenticeship in The Hague with the landscapist Andreas Schelfhout. Under his influence, he had grasped the importance of painting with watercolours outdoors. During his excursions, he set down in watercolour his impressions of nature, intended to help him develop his paintings.

His studies, often annotated, with an underlying drawing and enhanced by bursts of white gouache, testify to his interest in the changing effects of light.

In 1862, Jongkind struck up a friendship with Eugène Boudin, whom he had met on the Normandy coast. He also made the acquaintance of Claude Monet, who, in 1900, acknowledged: "[Jongkind] was, from that moment, my true master, and it was to him that I owed the definitive training of my eye".

Fresh and Curdled (c. 1848-1853) by Eugène BoudinMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

From the early 1860s onwards, Eugène Boudin, born in Honfleur, worked very productively along the Normandy coast. The artist, admired by Baudelaire for his “meteorological beauties”, never tired of observing the effects of the sky and the light of the Seine estuary. He used watercolour, pastel or (as here) oil on paper to transcribe his impressions. He sometimes wrote the time or the time of day on his studies. However, it is a sensation that he indicates here – "frais" or fresh – followed by a mysterious "tout calbotté" which, in the local Cauchois dialect, indicates curdled milk.

Setting Sun (c. 1865) by Claude MonetMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

On the Normandy coast, Claude Monet worked with Eugène Boudin in such close proximity that their works have sometimes been confused. They painted "en plein air" with pastels and left behind many examples of studies of fleeting weather effects. Pastel, a material which was less cumbersome to transport, was an excellent way to convey the feeling of instantaneity.

It was in 1858 in Rouelles, watching Boudin work outdoors from nature, that Monet understood: "I had grasped what painting could be; from the sole example of this artist in love with his art, and with independence, my destiny as a painter had opened up. " (Claude Monet, "Eugène Boudin and Claude Monet", Havre-Éclair, 1 August 1911). Monet quickly became the archetypal "plein air" painter.

Lady in White on the Beach at Trouville (1869) by Eugène BoudinMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

Boudin became famous for his delicate scenes of "crinoline" beaches which illustrated the high society lifestyle of the elegant, finely sketched figures who frequented the fashionable seaside resorts of the Second French Empire. He sought to capture the fleeting impressions of the atmosphere. On 30 August 1869, he wrote to his friend, the painter Ferdinand Martin: "I am still struggling with my figures of ladies, which are truly tormenting me. I have however sketched a number of them, but I had to draw a lot before succeeding. We are also being ravaged by the east wind, which brings with it the most boring weather imaginable for painting."

Eugène Boudin Painting on Deauville Pier (1896) by AnonymousMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

Having long been condemned to working on small panels, artists were now free to work outdoors with medium-size formats, as revealed in particular by this photograph showing Eugène Boudin on the pier in Deauville in 1896. Boudin would go on to give his friend Ferdinand Martin valuable advice on the essential equipment for outdoor painting: the ingenious easel-stool, the articulated parasol, the small English Radney pocket boxes, although he preferred the French pastel colours of Panier Paillard, and even the small satchel worn across the shoulder.

Bazille and Camille (Study for "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe") (1865) by Claude MonetMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

During the summer of 1865, in the Fontainebleau forest in Chailly, Claude Monet took on the ambitious project of a landscape with figures. The dimensions were remarkable: around 4.60 by over 6 metres. Monet intended it to be for the 1866 Salon. The artist worked by creating small studies in nature and then composing the ensemble in his workshop. "The Walkers. Study for ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe’", in which he depicts his future wife, Camille Doncieux, as well as his friend, the painter Frédéric Bazille, is one of these quickly finished studies, yet it is the size of a painting.

Bougival La Grenouillère by E. L. D.Musée des impressionnismes Giverny

La Grenouillère was a baths located on the island of Croissy, opposite Bougival. Linked to Paris by train, this place enjoyed its heyday from 1860 to 1889.

Bathers at La Grenouillère (1869) by Claude MonetThe National Gallery, London

In 1869, Claude Monet was living with Camille in the hamlet of Saint-Michel in Bougival. Auguste Renoir, living with his parents in Voisins near Louveciennes, paid him regular visits. They carried their easels to La Grenouillère, where they made a series of sketches from nature. On 25 September 1869, Monet revealed his quest to his friend Frédéric Bazille: "I do have a dream, a painting, the La Grenouillère baths, which I have done some poor sketches for, but it's just a dream. Renoir, who has just spent two months here, also wants to paint this picture." The large painting did not see the light of day, but in 1876 Monet presented one of his studies, three versions of which are known to us, as a standalone work at the second Impressionist exhibition.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Auguste RenoirNationalmuseum Sweden

The composition of Renoir's La Grenouillère is similar to the version by Monet kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the foreground on the right, the floating café…

...on the left, the footbridge leading to the "Camembert" or "flowerpot" where a tree is planted, with the elegant bathers in their Sunday best gesticulating...

...then, in the background, the boaters or sailboats.

In 1881, author Guy de Maupassant sets the scene for his short story "Paul's Mistress" there: "On a small platform, swimmers hurry to take a plunge. They are long like stalks, round like pumpkins, gnarled like olive branches, bent forward or thrown back by the size of their bellies, and, invariably ugly, they jump into the water which spurts up to the coffee drinkers. "

Beyon the anecdote, Renoir and Monet seek above all to capture, by a vigorous execution and a split touch, the vibrant reflections of light on the water on a sunny day. These studies are today considered the quintessence of Impressionism.

The Beach at Trouville (1870) by Claude MonetThe National Gallery, London

Claude Monet grew up in Le Havre, where he spent the early years of his apprenticeship. In the summer of 1870, he stayed with his family at the Hotel Tivoli in the famous seaside resort of Trouville, where he met Eugène Boudin. The tight framing showing the two female figures in close-up, like photo snapshots, further emphasises the originality of this work.

Here, he depicts Camille, his young wife, seated in a dazzling white dress, with a hat of artificial flowers and holding a parasol...

...and, in all likelihood, Boudin's wife – in a black outfit – on the beach.

The artist has successfully preserved the freshness of the immediate emotion and the brightness of the atmosphere, without even trying to hide the grains of sand and the fragments of shells embedded in the paint.

Trouville. Hôtel des Roches NoiresMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

This perspective is the one adopted in the compositions by Boudin and Monet: behind the beach cabins, which are no longer there today, lies the Hôtel des Roches Noires.

Credits: Story

The exhibition "Plein air. From Corot to Monet", curated by Marina Ferretti, Specialist in the Impressionist and post-Impressionist period, assisted by Vanessa Lecomte, Associate Curator at the musée des impressionnismes Giverny, was originally scheduled for 27 March to 28 June 2020 at the museum, but had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

Sylvia Brame, Comité Caillebotte, Clémence Ducroix, Romain Dugast, Benjamin Findinier, David Gadanho, Galleria d'Arte Moderna di Milano, Annette Haudiquet, Charlotte Hellman Cachin, Peter Huestis, Ivona Soldà.

We invite you to explore the work published for the event by the musée des impressionnismes Giverny in conjunction with Éditions Gallimard, Paris.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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