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True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe 1780–1870

True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe 1780–1870


This lavish catalogue presents sketches made en plein air between the end of the eighteenth century and late nineteenth century. It accompanies a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington (USA), the Fondation Custodia (France) and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (UK).


In the eighteenth century the tradition of open-air painting was based in Italy, Rome in particular. Artists came from all over Europe to study classical sculpture and architecture, as well as masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque art. During their studies, groups of young painters visited the Italian countryside, training their eyes and their hands to transcribe the effects of light on a range of natural features. The practice became an essential aspect of art education, and spread throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. This exhibition focuses on the artists’ wish to convey the immediacy of nature observed at first hand.


Around a hundred works, most of them unfamiliar to the general public, will be displayed. The artists represented include Thomas Jones, John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Achille-Etna Michallon, Camille Corot, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Johan Thomas Lundbye, Vilhelm Kyhn, Carl Blechen, Johann Martin von Rohden, Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, Johann Jakob Frey, among others. The sketches demonstrate the skill and ingenuity with which each artist quickly translated these first-hand observations of atmospheric and topographical effects while the impression was still fresh. 


The exhibition and the catalogue will be organized thematically, reviewing, as contemporary artists did, motifs as trees, rocks, water, volcanoes, and sky effects, and favourite topgraphical locations, such as Rome and Capri. The catalogue will present numerous unpublished plein air sketches, and contains much original scholarship on this relatively young field of art history.

  • Edited by Ger Luijten, Mary Morton and Jane Munro

    Contributions from Ger luijten, Mary Morton, Jane Munro, Michael Clarke, Ann Hoenigswald and Anna Ottani Cavina 

    2 February 2020
    Hardback, 240 x 255 mm
    256 pages, 140 colour illus.
    ISBN: 978-1-911300-78-6


  • Exhibition

    National Gallery of Art, Washington  
    2 February – 1 August 2020
    Take a virtual tour here


    Fondation Custodia, Paris         
    Spring 2021


    Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge    
    Anticipated 2021

  • In the press

    "The excellent catalogue, with essays by the curators and several other distinguished scholars of the field, is like a crash course in nineteenth-century aesthetics." —The New Criterion


    ""a vibrant celebration of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists who packed up their materials and set off into the fields to get better acquainted with nature and paint" —Times Literary Supplement


    "...for all its quietude, the show is radical. And so intensely beautiful. You walk in and . . . wow! If you have any capacity for feeling, you gasp." —The Washington Post


    "The aim was to record the natural world in all its untamed glory, from scudding clouds to spitting volcanoes. As a new exhibition and book of their spontaneous sketches show, they were really in their elements." —The World of Interiors


    "As you proceed through this splendid show, the spontaneity and refreshing vividness of the works exert their subtle power so that the gallery walls seem pierced by a series of windows opened onto a now-departed, less threatened world—one deftly, joyously and candidly recorded in all its glory." —The Wall Street Journal

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