Ruines antiques dans un paysage classique
(Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes)


(Toulouse 1750 – Paris 1819)

Ruines antiques dans un paysage classique

Oil on panel: 41 x 56.5 cm (16.14 x 22.24 in)

Signed and dated, lower right: P. Valenciennes/ 1790

Painted in 1790, at the height of Valenciennes’ career, this jewel-like panel, which depicts a classical idyll of indistinct narrative, is characteristic of the artist’s taste for le paysage absolument idéal, Greco-Italian styled landscapes peopled with classical figures. Inspired by the great tradition of seventeenth century landscape painting, artists incorporated classical ruins or capriccios peopled by togate figures or mythological groups, all set amidst dense trees and foliage, the scene often complemented by a soaring mountainous horizon in the background. Rather than any actual evocation of classical history Valenciennes instead depicted intimate scenes of an ancient ideal, made tangible by the vivid balance of its landscape setting.

Valenciennes was acknowledged as one of the most prolific and influential landscape painters working at the turn of the 18th Century. After a period of study on Rome, upon his return to Paris around 1786, he began to paint similar paysages arcadiennes and continued to develop this genre throughout his entire career until his death in 1819. In terms of atmosphere, quality of light, and the geometric rationalism of the landscape, the present panel recalls a small contemporary canvas, now in the in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Poitiers (Fig. 1). Another distinctive feature of this work, the figure group of the draped matron standing before the woman seated beside an amphora, is found in a pen and ink sheet signed and dated 1791 in Le Havre. Another later, highly finished, pen and ink capriccio (1797-1798) in the collection of the Musée Cantini, Marseille, includes the swan-prowed boat, which appears to be the artist’s own variation on a Homeric craft recognisable from archaic vase painting, examples of which the artists could easily have encountered in Roman collections (Fig.2). Valenciennes subsequently placed the same boat in the centre of his late masterpiece in Toulouse The Eruption of Vesuvius (1813).

Comparable oil on panel works depicting Arcadian landscapes are rare in Valenciennes’ surviving body of work. One example is the Mercury and Argus (1793) in the Bowes Museum (Fig. 3) , in which the same craggy outcrop dominates the horizon. Another slightly later panel dated 1794, of the same dimensions as the present work, shows a similar landscape framing a scene of youths and maidens engaged in a game so rambunctious their ball topples a votive column. In terms of atmosphere, quality of light, and the geometric rationalism of the landscape, the present picture closely recalls a small contemporary canvas, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Poitiers (Fig. 4).

The 1790 panel is not recorded as having been exhibited in any of the Salons, but it prefigures two of Valenciennes’ most celebrated works made only two years later. Dated to 1792 and exhibited in Salon of the following year, these canvases depicted two subjects from Ovid: Byblis transformée en fontaine, and Narcisse se mirant dans l’eau. In the Quimper canvases, the panel in County Durham and the present panel, Valenciennes based the mountainous landscape on studies he made in the 1780s of the area around Castelli Romani, and in fact, in the present work, Valenciennes even included a view of the Chiesa San Michele Arcangelo, which is set atop a high cliff and framed by the distinctive profile of Monte Soratte.

In fact, an appreciation of the topographical accuracy and geometric balance that typifies Valenciennes’ Greco-Italianate landscapes is key to understanding his importance in the development of French landscape painting. A relatively obscure figure in French art history before the 1970s, Valenciennes was noted by contemporaries as not only a talented painter, but a polymath, who also excelled as a violinist, a composer of music, and a keen scholar of natural science, who amassed a notable collection of minerals and shells. It is partly for this reason that, however tempting it may be to read Valenciennes Arcadian landscapes as a expression of nostalgia for an aesthetic, which by 1790 was already fast disappearing in the wake of the French Revolution, this would be misleading. Valenciennes in fact, detested the anachronistic and the purely ornamental. So while he did not hesitate to rearrange or embellish nature in his landscapes, his priority was always to achieve an organic coherence, to depict a natural setting as they might logically, if not actually, exist. In his treatise Élemens de perspective… Valenciennes set out his rules for landscape painting and described how the founders of the genre – including Nicolas Poussin, Annibale Carracci, Titian and Domenichino, whose works Valenciennes knew intimately through his own print collection – were directly inspired by classical literature. Through their readings of Homer, Virgil and Ovid, et al. these masters envisaged an ideal nature, one ‘adorned with the riches of the imagination, which only genius can conceive and represent.’ Valenciennes used classical themes and motifs to directly continue and contribute to this tradition, the strongest examples of which known at the time were the works of Poussin, himself, a follower of Claude. It was Poussin who, in large part, first perfected the heroic landscape as a standard against which all other such painting was measured; that is, arguably, until nearly one hundred and fifty years later, when Valenciennes revived this then somewhat faded genre and re-elevated landscape painting to equal history painting in innovation and gravitas.

41 x 56.5 sm
Oil on panel

possibly Salon 1791

Historical Period
Neoclassicism - 1780-1820
Price band
$250,000 - $350,000