In the Light of Italy, Artists Paint ‘True to Nature’

Washington's National Gallery of Art presents oil sketches from across Europe

"The Tomb of Caecilia Metella," circa 1830, by Léon-François-Antoine Fleury. Oil on canvas; 11 inches by 13 inches. Gift of Frank Anderson Trapp. (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

“No two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other,” British landscape painter John Constable said.

Constable referred to nature’s only constant: change. An academic art studio can never simulate the way the light falls on the land at a particular time of day. Artists needed to go out and study nature for themselves.

“In the late 18th century and across the 19th century, you simply were not an educated artist until you went to Rome and were steeped in ancient culture, ancient architecture, ancient sculpture, Renaissance and Baroque painting and architecture—and increasingly, in the 1780s, and 1790s, going out into the Roman campagna [countryside] and recording the beautiful, magical light of Italy; the topography of the Roman campagna.” Mary Morton said. Morton is the curator and head of the department of French paintings at Washington’s National Gallery of Art.