1. Jean-Achille Benouville

Paris 1815 – 1891 Paris

View of Lake Nemi with the Town of Genzano in the Background, c. 1845

Among the views painted or drawn by Benouville in Italy, Lake Nemi and the surroundings of the town of Genzano appear to be privileged subjects1. Since Antiquity, the site – which is some thirty kilometres to the south-east of Rome – had been appreciated by Roman patricians for their rustic sojourns. Proving that its attraction was still clearly vivid in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was also immortalised on many occasions by John Robert Cozens (1752-1797)2 and William Turner (1775-1851).3 Unlike his British elders, who had preferred views overlooking the lake, Benouville chose a most unusual vantage point for this very large watercolour.

This view of Lake Nemi is mostly a pretext for a masterly study of trees. The bulky outline of the holm oak clinging to the bank of the lake, taking up the upper three-fourths of the sheet, deftly organises the composition.4 Effortlessly playing with a dry graphic technique – black chalk – which he associated with watercolour and gouache, Benouville detailed the rough texture of the bark on the trunk and the branches. He kept the pen drawing – flowing and calligraphic – to outline the masses of foliage, jotted down with the sparest means, the structure of the planes rendered above all by shades of watercolour. Strokes of white gouache shape the volumes in the bright Southern light, composing a chiaroscuro. As when working with wash, Benouville built the principal features of his landscape with broad flat colour tints, subtly merged here in a similar camaïeu: green-brown for the bank, grey-green for the foliage. What is more, the artist gave a definite impetus to his composition by arranging his foreground as a repoussoir, on oblique lines: guiding the eye up to the edge of the water, they contrast with the serene horizontality of the opposite bank, in the background. Benouville also suggests the wild vitality of this nature’s nook by depicting the trunk of the uprooted tree fallen into the lake, its stump exposed, and the heap of boulders that had tumbled down the steep bank. He treated the latter like a group of simple geometric forms, similar to the houses represented in his Landscape of Italy with a Perched Village (see cat. no. 2), which was done during this same prolonged Italian period.

Poised between a classical construction of the landscape and a naturalist sensibility, this watercolour by Benouville bears the stamp of his training experience alongside Camille Corot (1796-1875) (see cat. no. 16), with whom he worked for several months in Rome in 1843. His particular interest in motifs of remarkable trees, which he notably shared with Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819),5 can be perceived in the many sheets he devoted to the study of this motif, and of which the Fondation Custodia is fortunate to hold an example.6 MNG

1Marie-Madeleine Aubrun, in her catalogue raisonné of Benouville’s paintings, lists a View Taken between Ariccia and Genzano and Substructions on the Edge of Lake Nemi (nos. 55 and 121, siting not specified by the author), as well as two views of Lake Nemi (nos. 262 and 263 bis, siting not specified by the author); as for the drawings, she lists a View Taken at Genzano (no. D. 10, siting not specified by the author), a Lake Nemi (no. D. 76, siting not specified by the author), as well as the three other drawn views of Nemi that featured in the studio sale under nos. 209, 217 and 233, catalogued by the author respectively D. 422, D. 426 and D. 432; Marie-Madeleine Aubrun, Achille Benouville. 1815-1891, catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre, Paris 1987.

2We can mention for example Lake Nemi, c. 1783-1788, in London, Tate Britain, inv. no. N05807 (watercolour; 445 × 632 mm); see http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks.

3Notably, Lake Nemi, c. 1840, in London, The British Museum, inv. no. 1958,0712.444 (watercolour; 347 × 515 mm); see Kim Sloan, J.M.W Turner: Watercolours from the R.W. Lloyd Bequest to the British Museum, London 1998, no. 44; and http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx.

4Two pen drawings in private collection, dated 1857, also represent a bank of Lake Nemi with a monumental tree in the foreground (respectively 170 × 255 mm and 240 × 355 mm). The second is actually a very exact copy of the first, in a larger format. Benouville etched the former; see Aubrun 1987, op. cit. (note 1), nos. D. 48 and D. 49, repr., and G. 20 for the print. He also isolated the particular motif of this same tree, with its twisted branch grazing the surface of the water, in another drawing done c. 1856-1857, in a private collection (brown wash; 280 × 370 mm); see ibid, no. D. 50. Last, he drew another view of the banks of the lake, once again with a very big tree at the water edge (pastel and gouache; 449 × 638 mm); see ibid, no. D. 405 (siting not specified by the author).

5See Draughtsman under a Tree in the Bois de Boulogne, c. 1773, in Paris, Fondation Custodia, inv. 2000-T.15 (black chalk; 306 × 192 mm); Jean Penent et al., “La Nature l’avait créé peintre” Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes 1750-1819, Paris 2003, p. 207, fig. 1.

6Paris, Fondation Custodia, inv. 1977-T.6 (pen and brown ink, over a sketch in pencil; 275 × 325 mm. Inscribed, upper left, in brown ink: “Bas-breau - Fontainebleau 1837”).