The Sublime Landscape

Georges Michel

from 27 January to 29 April 2018

Discover Georges Michel (1763-1843) in the first exhibition devoted exclusively to the work of this French artist for fifty years.


Admired by Vincent van Gogh, Georges Michel is held to be the precursor of plein air painting. He was influenced by the painters of the Dutch Golden Age, earning the nickname of ‘the Ruisdael of Montmartre’. Yet today he is not widely known.

The Fondation Custodia, in collaboration with the Monastère royal de Brou, is proposing to unveil the artist whose merits were first remarked by the dealer Paul Durand-Rueil in the nineteenth century. The first one-man exhibition for fifty years of the work of Georges Michel will be held from 27 January to 29 April 2018 at 121 rue de Lille, Paris. About fifty paintings and forty drawings – on loan mainly from French private and public collections – will be on show, and the exhibition will include some recent acquisitions by the Fondation Custodia.

Georges Michel was born in Paris in 1763 and died there in 1843 after a remarkable career, whether in real terms or in a mythical post-mortem reconstruction of the life of this allegedly misunderstood artist. The main body of what we know about him comes from the biography written by Alfred Sensier in 1873, compiled from information recounted to him by the artist’s widow. Michel kept his distance from official art circles and only took part in the Salon between 1791 – the date when the exhibition first opened its doors to artists who were not members of the former Académie royale – and 1814. His name was not mentioned thereafter until the sale of his work and the contents of his studio a year before his death.

The Storm
Oil on canvas. – 48 × 63 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, inv. 937
Photograph by M. Bertola

The exhibition at the Fondation Custodia opens with youthful work by the artist, still betraying the influence of the eighteenth-century French landscape tradition as embodied in the art of Lazare Bruandet (1755-1804) or Jean-Louis Demaine (1752-1829), with whom Michel explored the Ile-de-France in search of subjects for sketching. He remained loyal to Paris and the surrounding countryside, claiming that ‘anyone unable to spend a lifetime painting within a range of four leagues is just a blundering fool searching for a mandrake – he will find only a void’. Saint-Denis, Montmartre or La Chapelle, the Buttes-Chaumont and the banks of the Seine, the countryside to the north of Paris offered a variety of hills and plains, dotted with quarries, mills and scattered dwellings.

Georges Michel’s style developed gradually away from the picturesque, anecdotic landscape that was in vogue between 1770 and 1830, achieving a notable originality. His paintings capture, with sincerity and a hint of the romanticism to come, the rural spots threatened with extinction as the villages around Paris began to be subsumed into the capital during the 1860s.

Georges Michel after Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29-1682), View of Naarden. Oil on paper, laid down on canvas. – 37 × 68 cm. Private collection

At a period when the painting of the Northern schools was enjoying a revival in France, Georges Michel, according to his widow, carried out some restoration work on Dutch paintings for the influential Paris dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813) and for the Muséum central des Arts (now the Musée du Louvre), at the behest of its director, Dominique Vivant Denon (1747-1825). Even though no trace of this activity can be found in the archives, Michel’s work is incontrovertibly influenced by the masters of the Dutch Golden Age. The exhibition at the Fondation Custodia – one of whose aims is to study the reception of Dutch art in France – takes this opportunity to compare Michel with the predecessors he so admired – and whose work he sometimes copied. From Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/1629-1682) he borrows compositions enlivened by vast, windswept skies, with sometimes a shaft of brilliant sunlight breaking through the clouds. The masterly chiaroscuro in his paintings, however, has its source in the work of Rembrandt (1606-1669). Philips Koninck (1619-1688), whose work in the eighteenth century was sometimes confused with that of Rembrandt, also evidently inspired Michel with his vast landscapes and limitless skies.

The Fondation Custodia, a home for art on paper in Paris, has recently acquired a large number of sheets by Georges Michel. The last section of the exhibition is devoted to these drawings. Michel’s prolific graphic work is characterised by its wide variety of techniques and subjects. The artist excelled in capturing vibrant views of Paris – in black chalk or, less frequently, pen and ink. The topographical nature of these drawings makes identification of the chosen locations simple: the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Jardin des Plantes, the Barrières de Ledoux.

Georges Michel, View of the Louvre with the Seine
Black chalk and watercolour. – 145 × 300 mm
Sceaux, Domaine départemental de Sceaux, dépôt du musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris,
inv. 37.2.74 (verso)

The lack of confidence to be glimpsed at times in these urban scenes is amply compensated by Michel’s skill at recreating the atmosphere of rural landscapes. As he tramped the still-fallow plains of the Ile-de-France, Georges Michel produced a considerable number of open-air studies in black chalk alone, often on blue paper of a standard size. As in the paintings, the wide plains dotted with fleeting points of interest are reproduced on small pages, sometimes collected into albums, four of which are still to be found in the Louvre, the Musée Carnavalet and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Taken from a fifth album acquired by the Fondation Custodia in 2016, a selection of fifteen studies in this exhibition illustrates the artist’s habit of compulsive, almost obsessional, sketching. They bear witness also to Michel’s need to endlessly rework his chosen subjects, simply in order to explore their possibilities. His drawings of isolated objects are less common; probably the most striking of these are his studies of trees. Heightened with water colour and sometimes annotated, these drawings are the fruit of very exact observation – indeed, they have something in common with genuine botanical studies. Georges Michel’s interest is primarily in the majesty of a particular specimen or the extraordinary forms taken by another; they pay homage to nature’s picturesque qualities and the variety of her creations.

Study of an Oak Tree
Black chalk, brown wash and watercolour.
412 × 282 mm
Besançon, musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie,
inv. D.2199 / Photograph by Pierre Guenat

Although influenced by French predecessors and by the art of seventeenth-century Dutch artists, Georges Michel’s work is possessed of a wholly individual vibrancy and turbulence. The freedom of the brushstrokes in his paintings – comparable to the dramatic use of black chalk or charcoal in some of his drawings – allows him to transcend the Ile-de-France. Michel’s landscapes are based on observation but far outstrip it; the results are truly sublime.

The work of Georges Michel marks a turning point in landscape painting in France. He influenced the generation of painters led by Jules Dupré (1811-1889) and Charles Jacque (1813-1894), but he also made a deep impression on Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Van Gogh’s letters reveal his familiarity with, and his admiration for, Michel’s work and his personality – he calls him ‘maître Michel’ (master Michel). Within the collection of the Fondation Custodia, Georges Michel perfectly embodies the link between the landscapes of the Dutch Golden Age and the oil sketches, painted out of doors, of the artists of the nineteenth century.

This exhibition is organised by the Fondation Custodia in collaboration with the Monastère royal de Brou, Bourg-en-Bresse.

Curators: Ger Luijten, director of the Fondation Custodia and Magali Briat-Philippe, conservateur, responsable du service des patrimoines, Monastère royal de Brou.

Selection of Works

  • Georges Michel, Stormy Landscape
    Oil on paper, laid down on canvas. – 51.8 × 67 cm
    Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon,
    inv. 1939.6
    Photograph by Alain Basset
  • Georges Michel, Landscape near Chartres
    Oil on panel. – 38 × 50 cm
    Musée Baron Gérard, Bayeux,
    inv. POO27
    Photo: Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Thierry Ollivier
  • The Storm
    Oil on canvas. – 48 × 63 cm
    Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, inv. 937
    Photograph by M. Bertola
  • The Storm
    Oil on panel. – 98 × 126 cm
    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen,
    Rotterdam, inv. 2240
    Photograph by Studio Tromp
  • Georges Michel, View of the Seine with a stage-coach
    Oil on paper, laid down on panel. – 60 × 79.5 cm
    Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris,
    inv. RF 2008-48 /
    Photo: Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Jean-Gilles Berizzi
  • Bridge leading to a town
    Oil on canvas. – 54.5 × 73.5 cm
    Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris
    inv. 2015-S.16
  • The Mill of Argenteuil, c. 1830
    Oil on canvas. – 100 × 86 cm
    Pau, musée des Beaux-Arts, inv. 78.4.1
    Photo: Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Benoît Touchard
  • Georges Michel, View of Naarden
    Georges Michel after Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29-1682)
    Oil on paper, laid down on canvas. – 37 × 68 cm
    Private collection
  • Georges Michel, View of the Louvre with the Seine
    Black chalk and watercolour. – 145 × 300 mm
    Sceaux, Domaine départemental de Sceaux, dépôt du musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris,
    inv. 37.2.74 (verso)
  • Study of an Oak Tree
    Black chalk, brown wash and watercolour.
    412 × 282 mm
    Besançon, musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie,
    inv. D.2199 / Photograph by Pierre Guenat
  • Landscape
    Charcoal. – 412 × 516 mm
    New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery,
    inv. 1977.128.2


Georges Michel. Le paysage sublime
Edited by Magali Briat-Philippe
and Ger Luijten
Paris, Fondation Custodia, 2017
208 pp, illustrations in colour, 25 × 28 cm, hard cover
ISBN 978 90 78655 26 8
Price: 29.00 €

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Practical Information

Exhibitions from 27 January to 29 April 2018


Fondation Custodia / Collection Frits Lugt
121, rue de Lille - 75007 Paris
Tel: +33 (0)1 47 05 75 19

Access by public transport

Metro: Assemblée Nationale (line 12) or Invalides (lines 8 and 13)
RER C: Invalides or Musée d’Orsay
Bus: lines 63, 73, 83, 84, 94, Assemblée Nationale
Vélib’: station opposite (n° 7009)

Opening hours

Every day except Monday, from 12 to 6 pm

Admission charges

Admission charges 10 € (full) / 7 € (reduced)
The reduced rate is available to seniors (over 60), unemployed people, groups of at least 10 people

Free admission: students, press card, ICOM card, disabled person’s card

The ticket gives access to all three exhibitions


Possibility to visit the exhibition Georges Michel. Le paysage sublime with a conference guide on the following dates (in French): Wednesday 28 February at 12 pm (fully booked), Saturday 17 March at 12 pm (fully booked), Tuesday 27 March at 12 pm (fully booked), Saturday 7 April at 12 pm (fully booked), Saturday 14 April at 12 pm (fully booked).
Admission: price of the exhibition ticket
Reservation required: