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True to Nature open-air painting in Europe exhibition to be held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge



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A new exhibition titled True to Nature will run at the Fitzwilliam Museum from Tuesday, May 3, to Monday, August 29.

Rough Sea Beside a Jetty by Carl Frederik Sorensen (1818-1879)
Rough Sea Beside a Jetty by Carl Frederik Sorensen (1818-1879)

The display unites, for the first time, more than 120 luminous open-air paintings from the remarkable collections of the Fondation Custodia in Paris, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Fitz in Cambridge, together with a distinguished private collection of oil sketches, never before seen in public.

The exhibition reveals the evolution of plein air painting across Europe in the 19th century. The practice of open-air painting developed rapidly across Europe during this period, as artists sought new ways of representing the natural world.

East Bergholt by John Constable (1776-1837)
East Bergholt by John Constable (1776-1837)
View of the Convent of Sant’Onofrio on the Janiculum, Rome by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875)
View of the Convent of Sant’Onofrio on the Janiculum, Rome by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875)

As the century progressed, it became enshrined in the teaching of art academies and was enthusiastically taken up by French, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch and British painters, although Italy was at the centre of this tradition.

Artists from all over Europe travelled south to paint the monuments of Rome and the landscapes of the campagna, the countryside around the city. Spectacular monuments testified to the great classical civilisations of the past, but the city itself had a unique picturesque appeal.

Paintings in the exhibition are presented thematically, according to natural phenomena they depict: skies and atmospheric effects, rocks and grottoes, volcanoes, trees, and shape-shifting bodies of water - crashing waves, waterfalls, and the still, reflective, surface of lakes and rock pools.

Castel Sant' Elmo, from Capodimonte by Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Castel Sant' Elmo, from Capodimonte by Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Sky Study with a Shaft of Sunlight by John Constable (1776-1837)
Sky Study with a Shaft of Sunlight by John Constable (1776-1837)

Artists’ eagerness to engage directly with nature, observing and recording it ‘in the field’, was mirrored in developments in the natural sciences. Just as painters amassed outdoor studies for reference, and to keep the authenticity of their experience fresh in the memory, so geologists, botanists and others – including artists like Valenciennes and Constable – formed collections of minerals, rocks and botanical specimens.

This fluidity between art and science allows the exhibition to interrogate what it means to be ‘true’ to nature, through a wide range of complementary material that includes rare field notebooks by Adam Sedgwick, one of the founders of modern geology; a dazzling group of minerals on loan from the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, named after him, scoriae (lava rock) collected after the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1794, and an extraordinary group of volcanic rock specimens collected on field trips around the world, from Hawaii to Java and Mount Erebus in Antarctica.

Jane Munro, co-curator of the exhibition and keeper of paintings, drawings and prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, said: “One of the few activities that remained a constant throughout the pandemic was the ability to go outside.

“We were drawn closer to the natural world, reawakening an appreciation of beauty too often overlooked in our busy lives. Nature on our doorstep became a reassurance, a salve. In these jewel-like paintings, the thrill of artists’ first-hand encounter with nature is palpable.

“Visitors will see through their eyes, feel their wonder as they record storm-torn skies, limpid rockpools, the dappled shade of a tree canopy or the awe-inspiring sight of an erupting volcano, admiring their endeavour to be true to nature.”

The Farmyard by Augustus Leopold Egg (1816-1863)
The Farmyard by Augustus Leopold Egg (1816-1863)
Young Man Reclining on the Downs by Théodore Caruelle d’Aligny (1798-1871)
Young Man Reclining on the Downs by Théodore Caruelle d’Aligny (1798-1871)

True to Nature Open-air painting in Europe 1780-1870 runs from May 3 to August 29. Tickets are free and go on general release today (Monday, April 4). For more information, visit fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk.

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