Plein air. From Corot to Monet: Plein air painting in England (1800-33)

By isolating England from the continent, the wars and the blockade were conductive to the development of a national art. Painting established itself there independently from the 18th century onwards, in a country that was spearheading the industrial revolution. Painting landscape directly from nature became the rule for a whole generation of artists who criss-crossed the countryside.

Stoke-by-Nayland (ca. 1810–11) by John ConstableThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

As early as 1802, John Constable followed their example, particularly in his native Stour Valley. In 1810, invited by his aunt Martha Smith, the artist went to Nayland to work on the altarpiece of the village church. He produced three audacious oil studies titled "Stoke-by-Nayland", sketched in broad strokes with an innovative style. This is the first version; the other two are kept at Tate Britain and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. In it, he does not yet attempt to convey a fleeting impression, but rather aims to express his feelings towards nature. These studies constituted a repertoire of motifs which allowed him to fully recompose his paintings later in the studio.

Old And New London (1897)LIFE Photo Collection

His contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner only worked directly from the motif occasionally. Whether painting in oil or in watercolour, he preferred to compose his work in the studio. In 1805, he began to explore the Thames and its tributary the Wey. He produced a set of eighteen studies painted outdoors in oil and with quick strokes (London, Tate).

Cloud Study (1821) by John Constable, 1776–1837, BritishYale Center for British Art

For Constable, on the other hand, coming face to face with nature became an essential activity, as he wrote to his childhood friend John Dunthorne in May 1802: "Since I propose to study the landscape, I want to finish my studies from nature. I bring a special box for this. It is not sketching but finishing from nature that distinguishes great artists − and not only for the sublime, but in the most insignificant things in the foreground."

From 1821 to 1822, in Hampstead, the artist executed a series of more in-depth studies of tree foliage and clouds on the spot. He was particularly attentive to the effects of atmosphere, colour and light. In these works, Constable specialised in changing skies and plays of quivering air.

Cloud Study (1821) by John Constable, 1776–1837, BritishYale Center for British Art

In September 1821, in a letter addressed to John Fisher, Constable specifies: "I have done some studies, carried further than I have yet done any, particularly a natural (but highly elegant) group of trees, ashes, elms, and oak &c – which will be of quite as much service as if I had bought the field and hedge row, which contains them. I have likewise made many skies and effects... We have had noble clouds & effects of light & dark & colour, as is always the case in such seasons as the present."

Study of Cirrus Clouds (1822) by John ConstableThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Many of his sketches feature a note on the reverse indicating the date and time of their creation and the weather conditions at that time. On the back of this study, the artist wrote "cirrus", displaying his knowledge. Constable had a copy of Thomas Forster's work, "Researches about Atmospheric Phenomena" (1815), which he annotated extensively.

Stormy Sea, Brighton (ca. 1828) by John Constable, 1776–1837, BritishYale Center for British Art

De 1824 à 1828, Constable peint une série d’esquisses sur la côte, près de Brighton. Il est tout particulièrement fasciné par les splendeurs de la mer, les brisants et le ciel. Ses compositions reposent sur une ligne d’horizon placée très bas qui magnifient ainsi la violence des ciels de tempête. Ici, le ciel occupe les deux tiers du tableau, seul à gauche un voilier semble perdu dans cette immensité.

Brighton Beach (1824-06-12) by John ConstableThe Victoria and Albert Museum

With a palette reduced to cold, almost monochrome tones, lit up by the red and white dashes of the small figures in the foreground, Constable conveys the darkness and the effect of the wind which heralds the storm.

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.

Rebecca Lyons, Olivia Stroud, Edward Town

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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