Over the last 40 years, one of the most significant developments in the study of 19th-century European paintings has been a growing appreciation of the importance of plein-air (outdoor) oil sketches to the Realist and Impressionist landscape aesthetic. In 2003 The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired from New York connoisseur Wheelock Whitney a comprehensive survey of sketches painted between 1785 and 1850 by many of the most notable artists of the French school who worked in this medium. The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850 will be held on the tenth anniversary of this major acquisition.
The 50 paintings in the exhibition, many no larger than a sheet of paper, reveal the rich tradition of painting out of doors nearly a century before Impressionism and provide an overture to key movements of 19th-century art that have long been a cornerstone of the Metropolitan Museum's holdings. These works greatly enrich the story of how the European tradition of plein-air painting unfolded during a key period demarcated at its outset by the advent of the French Revolution in 1789 and at its conclusion by the abdication of France's last king, Louis-Philippe, in 1848.
The Whitney Collection includes a remarkable concentration of plein-air oil studies, ranging from Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes' The Banks of the Rance, Brittany (possibly 1785) to Camille Corot's Waterfall at Terni (1826), and is complemented by a strong representation of finished landscapes, history and genre subjects, and portraiture-in short, the full range of paintings that one could expect to find in a Parisian private collection in the first half of the 19th century.
The practice of sketching in oil paint out of doors began to gain momentum in the late 18th century and is documented well before that. To equip themselves for sketching with paints out of doors, artists employed specialized apparatus: portable easels and paint boxes and, almost as fundamental as paint itself, paper. Paper was preferable to canvas because it was durable yet lightweight and easy to cut into small sheets. Typically, plein-air sketches were painted quickly in order to keep pace with nature's fleeting effects. Paper's smooth surface tended to allow the impasted pigment to lie on the surface, retaining the viscosity and luminosity of wet paint even after it dried. Such plein-air oil studies convey the sense of the artist painting d'après nature, a term that translates from the French as "from nature" but in the context of landscape sketching conveys immersion in nature.