True to Nature. Open-air Painting 1780-1870


In the second half of the eighteenth century, the practice of painting landscape oil sketches in the open air became widespread across Europe. Nurtured by philosophical writings, scientific enquiry and poetic sentiment, artists ventured outside their studios with portable painting kits, working quickly before the motif in order to train their eyes and hands in transcribing fleeting effects of light and atmosphere.

Italy was at the centre of this tradition, and artists from all over Europe travelled south to paint the monuments of Rome and the idealised landscapes of the Campagna. Most of these oil sketches, however, were not of celebrated sites, but of unassuming corners of the world and spontaneously observed glimpses of nature – the ever-changing shape of a cloud, the textured bark of a tree, the flow of running water.

Occupying a place between painting and drawing, these landscape studies were essentially the private working material of the artist; a precious resource which could be drawn upon to bring a sense of freshness and immediacy to larger-scale studio compositions, but which most artists would have never dreamed of exhibiting.

Bringing together over one hundred and fifty oil studies from the collections of the Fondation Custodia, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and a private collector, True to Nature presents an extraordinary opportunity for the close study of these strikingly modern landscapes. The works are presented thematically, creating rhythmic and poetic juxtapositions, and encouraging visitors to immerse themselves in each motif, witnessing the individuality of artistic responses and the experimentation invited by the technique.

III. Water, Rocks, Coasts

VIII. Skies and Effects

IX. Rooftops, Windows, Yards and Ruins