This is a view from a desiccated upper gallery of the Colosseum, looking across its open bowl toward the remains of the amphitheater’s even more porous southwest wall. The Palatine Hill and its ruins are in the distance. The balance of detail—near, far, and in between—makes this sketch legible as a picture although perhaps not immediately recognizable as a portrait of the most famous monument in Rome. This work was long thought to be by the German painter Ernst Fries (1801–1833); it may well have been painted about 1825, when he was in Rome.
Artists who trained within the Neoclassical tradition were drawn to Rome by its combination of antiquity and natural beauty, and the Colosseum offered a seemingly endless variety of naturally occurring compositions. This prospect is taken from within a desiccated upper gallery of the Colosseum, looking across its open bowl towards the remains of the amphitheater’s even more porous southwest wall, with the Palatine Hill and its ruins beyond. A distinctive feature of this study is the use of the horizontal format to frame what amounts to the stripe of a view, with a balance of detail near, far, and in-between: the whole is decidedly legible as a picture although perhaps not immediately recognizable as a portrait of the most famous monument in Rome.
When it was acquired by the Museum in 2003, this work bore a longstanding yet tentative attribution to the German painter Ernst Fries (1801–1833). There are indeed comparable views by Fries, including two drawings of 1824, The Colosseum, Rome (private collection; see Sigrid Wechssler, Ernst Fries [1801–1833]: Monographie und Werkverzeichnis, Heidelberg, 2000, p. 173, no. 152 recto) and Rome: View from the Baths of Caracalla toward San Giovanni in Laterano (Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, inv. HZ 3941; see Wechssler 2000, p. 177, no. 163). Beginning with Wechssler, however, scholars most familiar with Fries’s work do not accept the attribution (opinion forwarded by Annette Frese, email of March 17, 2011, Department of European Paintings files). Possible alternatives to Fries, for example Johann Martin von Rohden (1778–1868; suggested by Helmut Börsch-Supan, letter of August 8, 2011, Department of European Paintings files) and Josse Sebastien van den Abeele (1797–1855; suggested by Colin J. Bailey, letter of September 2, 2011, Department of European Paintings files), point to revealing parallels but are not entirely satisfactory.
This view was depicted in similar fashion by a number of artists, as seen in a wash drawing by François-Marius Granet (Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence, inv. 849.1 G 745; see Denis Coutagne, François-Marius Granet, 1775–1849: Une vie pour la peinture, exh. cat., Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence, 2008, p. 164, fig. 149) and an oil study by Louis-Léopold Robert (private collection; see Pierre Gassier, Léopold Robert, Neuchâtel, 1983, p. 98, ill.).
[Asher Ethan Miller 2013]
Gerda Kolmsee, née Panknin, Troisdorf Sieglar, Germany (until about 1985); her son and daughter-in-law, Winfried Ethelried-Helmut and Gala L. Kolmsee (about 1985–88); Gala L. Kolmsee, Big Rapids, Michigan (until 1988; sold in December to Whitney); Wheelock Whitney III, New York (from 1988)
Washington. National Gallery of Art. "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting," May 26–September 2, 1996, no. 84 (as by Ernst Fries; lent by a private collection, New York).
Brooklyn Museum. "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting," October 11, 1996–January 12, 1997, no. 84.
Saint Louis Art Museum. "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting," February 21–May 18, 1997, no. 84.
Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. "The Romantic Prospect: Plein Air Painters, 1780–1850," June 22–August 15, 2004, no. 43 (as by Ernst Fries).
Sydney. Art Gallery of New South Wales. "Plein-air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850," September 4–October 31, 2004, no. 43.
Melbourne. National Gallery of Victoria. "Plein-air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850," November 19, 2004–January 16, 2005, no. 43.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850," January 22–April 21, 2013, unnumbered cat. (fig. 50).
Peter Galassi. Corot in Italy: Open-Air Painting and the Classical-Landscape Tradition. New Haven, 1991, pp. 109, 113, colorpl. 132, dates it 1823–27; states that in this work the painter "rejected the panoramic scope of topographical reportage" by employing a vantage point that "has rendered the Colosseum (and the Palatine Hill) all but unrecognizable".
Jeremy Strick inIn the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1996, p. 216, no. 84, ill. (color), dates it 1824–27; suggests that it must have been painted toward the end of Fries's stay in Rome; states that it reflects a keen knowledge of Corot's oil sketches.
Yukitaka Kohari inPlein-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850. Exh. cat., Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. Shizuoka, 2004, p. 91, no. 43, ill. (color, reversed), dates it 1823–27; states "currently scholarship describes it as the work of an artist working in close proximity to Fries" (without citation).
John House. "Impressionism and the Open-Air Oil Sketch." Studying Nature: Oil Sketches from the Thaw Collection. Ed. Jennifer Tonkovich. New York, 2011, p. 98 n. 93, as attributed to Ernst Fries.
Asher Ethan Miller. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 70 (Winter 2013), pp. 41, 46, fig. 50 (color).