French Oil Sketches Introduction

French Oil Sketches


Excerpted from the exhibition catalogue: French Oil Sketches from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 17th Century–19th Century. Omaha, NE, Joslyn Art Museum, August 24, 2002 – January 5, 2003. Catalogue by J. Patrice Marandel

A taste for oil sketches
When in 1874, a group of young painters soon to be known as the Impressionists exposed their works collectively for the first time, most critics did not respond favorably to them. What seemed objectionable to them was not the subject matter of their works, which fell into the well-established genres of portrait, still-life or landscape, but rather the way these paintings were executed. Their colorful surfaces seemed rough and lacked the glazed finish of Academic paintings that made them look like instant old masters. The new art looked “sketch-like” according to some writers, and unfit for exhibition. Although the names of most artists in this catalogue would have been familiar to these critics, they would have found at the same time the exhibition of their sketches unworthy of a serious museum. These rapidly executed works, projects for larger paintings, personal notations, or works in progress, were meant to be kept, in the eyes of those critics, in the bric-a-brac of the artist’s studio. Perhaps artists could give them to friends as tokens of esteem (such is the case of the Sirens by Ziem in this exhibition), but they were not to show them publicly. To this day, oil sketches, in France at least, have not been recognized as a major genre: few examples hang at the Louvre, a museum, which in true Academic tradition, prefers to display the finished works of these artists. This is not the case in Anglo-Saxon countries. In England, for instance, oil sketches by Constable and Turner are shown side by side with their finished works. In Germany and Austria, oil sketches have long enjoyed the favor of the public. There are museums of oil sketches in Augsburg and Salzburg. In those countries where many artists worked as fresco painters, the oil sketch gave connoisseurs a particular opportunity to look at their works more closely.

The literature on oil sketches is scant. Besides the various exhibitions in which the works in this catalogue have been presented previously, only one major exhibition of oil sketches ever took place in America during the 20th century: Masters of the loaded Brush: Oil Sketches from Rubens to Tiepolo, an exhibition organized by the Department of Art History of Columbia University at the Knoedler Gallery in New York in 1967. Only a handful of French works, by Boucher and Fragonard, were included in that selection.

Oil sketches vary in size, from minute to very large compositions. They also vary from being unfinished (Baron Gérard: The 10th of August 1792) to being completed (Jean Jouvenet: The Raising of Lazarus), from being partial studies of figures or landscape elements (Louis-Leopold Boilly, Study of a Head) to being large and thought out compositions (Carle Vanloo, Theseus taming the Bull of Marathon). Some display the rough surface often associated with the free hand of an artist jotting down his first visual notations (P.H. de Valenciennes, Landscape with ruins), while other paintings are meticulously crafted (F.A. Vincent, Democritus among the Abderitans). Some sketches relate to projects or commissions, such as tapestries (J.B. Restout, Episodes from the story of Aeneas), but other sketches, or should one say “sketchily executed paintings,” seem to have been conceived as freestanding works (F. Boucher, The Death of Meleager). Most sketches are studies for larger paintings, but some were done by the artist after his own work, in order to keep a record of his composition, such may be the case in our selection of Laurent de La Hyre’s Assumption.

The term oil sketch is a misleading one to which art historians prefer to substitute a variety of French or Italian words that designate more accurately the type and function of the paintings under consideration: esquisse, ébauche, étude, modello, or riccordo.

The term esquisse designates the small version of a large composition, executed prior to the completion of the larger work. Esquisses were a mandatory step for art students entering competitions such as the Prix de Rome, and were also routinely executed by competitors for admission into the Académie Royale, the body that governed French art institutions until the time of the Revolution. Considerable changes could be made by the painter between his first esquisse and the final composition: typically the artist could shift his figures, alter their movements, substitute or add to a background, and of course, adopt an entirely different palette (Bernet: Theseus).

An ébauche is more likely an unfinished painting. Here, for instance, the great study for The 10th of August 1792, by Baron Gérard is an unfinished sketch, or an ébauche of an esquisse! There is no single reason that explains why an artist would abandon a composition: questions of patronage often play an important role in such decisions, whether the patron withdrew his support, or as in the case of the painting just mentioned, the political conditions changed making the subject obsolete. An artist could also deliberately set aside a painting in order to move on to another project.

The study, or étude, is usually a fragmentary representation, such as a part of the body, head, or hands, for instance, or part of a landscape—such as a tree trunk—often executed from direct observation of nature. In the case of the heads, the study is related to a particular Academic exercise, called the Tête d’expression, which was the technique of expressing feelings and passions through a set of established facial features: From the student’s mastery of this technique depended the credibility, and hence the success, of the picture.

The model, often called after its Italian name modello, is a finished sketch, occasionally referred to as presentation sketch, and intended to be shown to patrons for approval. Other modelli include sketches given to engravers for interpretation in their own medium (N. Hallé, Education of the Virgin; F. Boucher, Project for a cartouche). Finally, reduced versions of larger paintings are also referred to by their Italian name, riccordo. Painters made these as visual records of their own work, including the well-documented case of the painter Jean Restout executing such riccordi as guidelines for those who would be given the task to restore his paintings.

In spite of these fairly clearly differentiated categories, the reality is not simple. Because of the lack of documentation, it is often difficult to establish if a painting is in fact a modello or a riccordo. In any case, at least during the 17th and 18th century, oil sketches were means to an end, useful, indeed necessary, steps in the making of paintings. This again explains why sketches were seldom exhibited. Among the following paintings, a few were shown at the Salon—the major art exhibition held regularly in Paris throughout the 18th century. A small sketch by Baron Regnault, for instance, was shown at the 1783 Salon. This can be explained by the fact that the artist was at the time just back from Rome and was eager to establish his reputation and secure commissions. The work presented here was executed in 1778 and was part of a large group—thirty pictures—the artist showed in Paris that year.

The history of the oil sketch is thus immediately linked to the history of the French Academy. Created in 1648, the Academy was an institution designed both to foster the arts in France, and to provide the Crown access to the best talents in the kingdom. The Academy was asked to establish the guidelines of propriety in all matters aesthetic. It was intended to foster a certain type of painting—the history painting—over other genres, and it would deter “individual” artists to seek fame outside its established structures. These structures included essentially a center for art instruction, with a mandatory curriculum for the artist who entered it, and a single exhibition space, the already mentioned Salon held at the Louvre. The system worked admirably, at least for the first twenty years of its existence. The Salon provided, as intended, a forum for the approved artists and a market, albeit a very restricted one. The public was invited to the Salon, and its curiosity about the exhibited artists grew. Paradoxically by 1667, the Salon had lost some of its prestige with the artists. Some years its opening date had to be postponed for want of sufficient works to be exhibited. The last decades of the 17th century witnessed erosion of the Academy’s authority and of its ability to impose its vision.

One explanation for this situation has to do with a heated debate that opposed partisans of the Academy claiming their lineage to the great French classic artist Nicolas Poussin against a host of French artists taking instead the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens as a model. This complicated debate changed in fact the course of French painting. Both sides could claim equally competent artists. Simply put, the debate can be described as an intellectual dispute between two schools of artists. One side, the so-called Poussinistes, favored drawing, order, and geometry over color. The other side, the so-called Rubénistes, favored instead color over drawing. The Academy, officially on the side of the Poussinistes, was nonetheless open to the debate and invited the articulate theoretician of the Rubénistes, Roger de Piles—one of the rare contemporary voices to defend at the time the validity of the oil sketch as an art form—to present his theories in the form of a lecture at the Academy. For the Academy, in the words of Peter Walch, “drawing was considered a true intellectual discipline, subject to rules and to reason,” whereas “painting—especially sketching in paint—was too intuitive for academic theory to be allowed completely within its doors” (A.F.A., 1994–5). It is revealing that Poussin, an accomplished draftsman, never executed an oil sketch for his paintings. The “Rubénist” movement in France can be seen as the first, if tame, rebellion against the teachings of the Academy. Indeed most artists who sided with the Rubénistes were and remained members of the Academy. This was the case, for instance, with Jean Jouvenet whose modest debt to Rubens manifests itself in an original sense of color. Few Rubénistes could officially subscribe to de Pile’s argument that painting was purely visual art—the first articulation of the theory of “art for art’s sake”—whose purpose was not didactic but based instead upon its uniquely pictorial effectiveness. French artists were aware of the differences between their art and Rubens’s painterly approach to painting. The surface of his paintings revealed brushstrokes, changes and hesitations, all of which startled and captured the attention of artists formed in a rigorously different environment. The oil sketch—an essential component of Rubens’s art—could be considered by these artists as a fully accomplished art form, not just a study toward a larger composition (the more since Rubens’s finished paintings often looked like sketches). Furthermore, Rubens’s sketches were eagerly collected even during the artist’s lifetime. It can be argued that the feverish collecting of Rubens’s sketches was not a reflection on the fame of the artist, but recognition on the part of the collectors of the specificity and importance of these smaller works.

The Rubénistes vs. Poussinistes debate both coincided with and triggered a shift in French collecting. Royal collecting had defined collecting in France during the reign of Louis XIV. During the last years of his reign, however, a small community of immensely wealthy individuals, belonging to the high bourgeoisie, rose to the fore. Interestingly, most of them were collectors of pictures and devoted partisans of the Rubéniste cause. Pierre Crozat, a financier, whose collection was only surpassed by those of the King and the King’s brother, was the most famous of all. Crozat’s house provided a neutral ground for discussions and debates and attracted connoisseurs and artists seeking relief from the strictures of the Academy. Crozat favored artists, such as Watteau, who worked outside of the Academic system. Furthermore, French collectors of the time were particularly attracted to small, Northern, cabinet pictures by such painters as Gerard Dou or David Teniers. The subjects of these paintings—“genre” representations of daily life—were new for the French public, and the presence of Northern art became increasingly visible in Paris. If the walls of the Salon were not available to Northern artists, the many art fairs that proliferated in the streets of Paris, and lasted for months, were instead a welcoming ground for them. The painters exhibiting in those fairs cornered the budding Parisian art market. Soon, French painters like Watteau and Chardin began exhibiting there. Unfortunately, because of the episodic character of those fairs, no catalogues were printed that would list the paintings offered to the public. Indeed, it is impossible to know if oil sketches were sold there, but it is certain that the taste for paintings of small format and rapid execution benefited from these fairs.

Ambitious artists, even if pursuing an official career, were certainly aware of the public’s appetite for small, attractive, and freshly executed pictures. Boucher, for instance, may have decided early in his career to reach for the pinnacle of his profession, but his complex beginnings—which include working for engravers and doing a certain amount of commercial work—may have included a desire to address the growing market for cabinet pictures. His Death of Meleager is swiftly painted, a few brushstrokes elegantly delineating a figure, the paint thinly applied. It looks in every way like an oil sketch, but it does not fit any of the categories mentioned above. It is not a study for a larger work, nor a model for presentation. Furthermore, the artist painted several identical versions of it. If the goal of a sketch is essentially for the artist to work out problems of composition and color, then one version would suffice. The fact that several versions have survived seems to prove its appeal to collectors. Conversely, F. A. Vincent showed his Democritus among the Abderitans at the 1791 Salon. His picture is as finished as the large pictures that hung above it in the rigorous display for the Salon where small pictures were shown at eye-level, and larger pictures above, but the artist reduced the subject of a typical history painting to the dimensions of an oil sketch.

Triggered both by the Rubéniste movement and by the fashion for Dutch cabinet pictures, a stylistic shift promptly paralleled the shift in collecting introduced by Crozat and his peers. The “loaded brush,” implying the tangible presence of the artist, became in the course of the 18th century a distinct choice for some artists. Boucher, most eloquently in his late work, relinquished the famous Academic finish for a surface made of surprises and effects, inherited from, and influenced by the oil sketch. Fragonard, his pupil, made it his specialty to confuse the boundaries between finished and unfinished, sketch and completed work. In his gallery of contemporaries in fancy costumes, Fragonard particularly emphasized the sketchiness of the surface. Yet these paintings found their place in some of the most prominent collections of the time. Painters of the next generation such as Jacques-Louis David, who favored a return to a strict classicism and to an icy and perfect surface, played occasionally with the contrast of finished and unfinished, as in his famous portrait of Madame Récamier (Paris, Musée du Louvre). Whether that painting is finished or not matters little here. The important element is that David allowed it to be released from his studio, and found its “sketchy” quality acceptable enough to be admired.

— J. Patrice Marandel