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Painting landscapes with oils in the open air has now become a universally recognized practice, but it was not always so. “The Romantic Prospect: Plein Air Painters 1780-1850” currently running at the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art — deals with a period in which painters famously started to go outdoors and represent what they saw with oils at the scene — a departure from the earlier practice of painting landscapes in studios and a decisive move toward the modern notion of landscape paintings.

Typically, toward the end of the 18th century, painters started taking easels, brushes and oil colors to outdoor locations and painting the landscape on the spot.

While many painters from northern European countries — most famously perhaps John Constable (1776-1837) and J.M.W Turner (1775-1851) from England — engaged in this practice for their larger works, it is only recently that the practice of making an oil (as opposed to watercolor) study or etude first, has been seriously studied in the art world.

“In an overwhelming number of cases, painters drew on pieces of paper with oil colors. They later backed the paper with canvas,” explained Yukitaka Kohari, chief curator of the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art.

“There may have been cases in which painters added details in studios later. But the important thing is how carefully and minutely the painters observed a landscape lying before their eyes and how honestly and straightforwardly they transferred to the pieces of paper the feelings they experienced in the midst of nature.”

In oil sketches, the colors are more natural and less artificial than in the case of earlier landscape paintings.

They also show that these artists’ approach and attitude — opening their senses out to the skies, clouds, leaves, streams and buildings around them and depicting them with a spirit of realism — prefigure modern works.

An etude is worked on outside, with the artist drawing directly from the landscape in front of him. The landscape painter Corot’s oil sketches were only discovered after his death in 1875, a year after the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris. This in itself seems significant as Corot is often seen as an artistic avatar of the Impressionists.

Oil sketches can, in a sense, be regarded as a forerunner of photography because painters of oil sketches focused on a section of the vast expanse of a landscape and transferred it to a piece of paper or a wooden board just as a photographer chooses a portion of a landscape through a viewfinder. The art was in selecting the landscape for composition in medias res, as opposed to re-creating it one’s memory or imagination indoors.

The exhibition here includes many painters who went to Rome and Naples and painted oil sketches, such as the British painter Thomas Jones (1742-1803), Camille Corot (1796-1875) and Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819) from France, as well as those who were working in the same spirit in other countries who did not undertake the visit. Here are some great examples of, for instance, Vernet, Bidault, Picot, Delacroix, Theodore Rousseau, Denis and Closson from Belgium, as well as Constable.

The Japanese subtitle of the exhibition, “Insho-ha e no Michi (Road to Impressionism),” summarizes an important aspect of oil sketches.

Thanks to cooperation from eager collectors like the American Eugene Victor Thaw, Patrick Matthiesen and John Lishawa from Britain, the exhibition represents the latest stage of research into oil sketches, clearly presenting evidence that they were a movement that encompassed artists from many countries who influenced modern paintings in a wider sense.

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