Before Paris became the world capital of the arts, young painters and sculptors flocked to Rome to complete their training.
“Nature et Ideal,” a sumptuous exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, focuses on the first half of the 17th century when Rome was the center of a new trend -- landscape painting.
Landscape as an independent genre had emerged previously, yet it was only around 1600 that it became fashionable.
Two schools vied for the new market: Flemish and Dutch painters supplied collectors with realistic pictures whereas Rome was the place for those who preferred decorative, idealized landscapes inspired by the Italian countryside.
Only half of the 34 artists at the Grand Palais show, which features 80 paintings and some 30 drawings, are Italian. The rest came from Germany, Flanders, Holland and Spain. The two stars, Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Gellee (1600-1682), better known as Claude Lorrain, the man from Lorraine, were French.
The show starts with a delicious riverscape by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). His “Flight Into Egypt,” another of his famous canvases, though in the catalog, was prevented from leaving Italy at the last moment because of quarrels among heirs of the Doria Pamphilj family.
As it happens, Carracci’s masterpiece, the frescoes at the French embassy in Rome, the Palazzo Farnese, are, for the first time in history, open to the public (through April 27).
His pupil and assistant at the Palazzo Farnese, “Domenichino” Zampieri (1581-1641) roamed the Campagna Romana with a sketchbook. In his studio, he transformed the sketches into picturesque paintings -- nature as it should have been, not necessarily as it was.
Domenichino must have been quarrelsome. At Sant’Andrea della Valle, the church dear to opera fans as the setting of Act I in Puccini’s “Tosca,” he had noisy rows with his co-worker Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647) who also has works in the exhibition.
In Naples, the warfare between Domenichino and the local artists got so nasty that he had to flee. One of his assistants was killed.
The most versatile artist, Salvator Rosa (1615-1673), was not only a painter. He also was admired as a poet, a musician and an actor. The Romantics lionized him. Rosa’s landscapes are theatrical and wild, sometimes macabre.
The second part of the show is dominated by Poussin’s and Lorrain’s large canvases. They both spent most of their lives in Rome, and they both had a tremendous influence on English landscape gardening.
Heroes and Poets
Yet they were different.
Poussin had a more cerebral approach. His heroic landscapes remind us that the reign of the Sun King was just around the corner.
Lorrain’s landscapes are more poetic. His ideal was the pastoral serenity of a Golden Age. So popular were his paintings that -- to protect himself against fakes -- he recorded them in the form of sketches in a “Liber Veritatis,” or Book of Truth.
“Nature et Ideal” runs through June 6 and then travels to the Prado in Madrid where it will be on view from July 5 to Sept. 25. Information: http://www.rmn.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)