Not all plein-air painting is sketchlike in appearance. This example probably benefitted from the use of a camera obscura, an optical device that enabled the artist to draw myriad fine details before applying paint. The result is a marvelously deft tonal study of contre-jour (the reflection of full sunlight) that is highly atmospheric for so small a picture. Dunouy was one of a handful of French artists to visit Subiaco in the 1780s. This work may have survived an 1803 fire that destroyed nearly all the early Italian studies in his Paris studio.
This meticulously rendered study was first attributed to Dunouy by Whitney in the early 1990s. Few details concerning Dunouy’s early life and training are known. His legacy principally rests on his having been one of a number of artists of the French school born in the 1750s, including Valenciennes, Bidauld, and Denis, who painted directly from nature in Italy in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, thereby contributing to the dissemination of this practice as a cornerstone of modern landscape painting. Although finished paintings by Dunouy survive from as early as the 1790s, the majority of his known plein-air sketches postdate a fire that ravaged his atelier on February 23, 1803 (Anne-Elisabeth Heurtaux, email, September 4, 2012, Department of European Paintings files).
According to C. P. Landon, Dunouy visited Italy for eight years (Annales du musée et de l’école moderne des beaux-arts: Paysages et tableaux de genre, vol. 3, Paris, , p. 76). As he first exhibited subjects based on what he saw there at the Salon of 1791, it is fair to assume that he first arrived in Italy about 1783. This view evidently antedates the erection of the arch dedicated by Pope Pius VI, when still a cardinal, to the commemorate the opening of a new road from Rome in 1789, on or near the spot where the low white gate appears in the foreground. The monastery of Santa Scolastica may barely be glimpsed at lower right.
For a painting of such small size, which is a factor of its having been executed out of doors, this study evinces remarkable attention to compositional structure and to the ways in which it could be reinforced by constituent details, much in the same way that a portrait painter marries the conventions of his practice to the particular features of a sitter. Taking advantage of Subiaco’s distinctive profile, the artist divided the picture diagonally from upper left to lower right, a simple geometrical device diffused by the myriad rooflines. The artist reveled in the haphazard lines and interstices of hilltown architecture, the concomitant play of light and shadow over its complex faceting, and the distinctive punctuation of rows of windows: these features would become characteristic of works dating to Dunouy’s Neapolitan sojourn of 1810–15. It is likely that the artist here employed a camera obscura, an optical device that would enable him to draft this study’s precise and complicated linear underdrawing, much of which is visible to the naked eye (see Binda 2006; this contention was helpfully elaborated upon in conversation with Malcolm Daniel, 2011.)
[Asher Ethan Miller 2013]
uncatalogued(?) sale, Hôtel Drouot Rive Gauche, Paris,1979, to Fischer-Kiener; [Jacques Fischer-Chantal Kiener, Paris, 1979; sold in December to Whitney]; Wheelock Whitney III, New York (from 1979)
Washington. National Gallery of Art. "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting," May 26–September 2, 1996, no. 4 (as "Hill Town in Italy" by Alexandre-Hyacinthe Dunouy; lent from 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. 4.
Saint Louis Art Museum. "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting," February 21–May 18, 1997, no. 4.
Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. "The Romantic Prospect: Plein Air Painters, 1780–1850," June 22–August 15, 2004, no. 13 (as "View of an Italian hill town" by Alexandre-Hyacinthe Dunouy).
Sydney. Art Gallery of New South Wales. "Plein-air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850," September 4–October 31, 2004, no. 13.
Melbourne. National Gallery of Victoria. "Plein-air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850," November 19, 2004–January 16, 2005, no. 13.
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. 11).
Jeremy Strick inIn the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1996, pp 115–6, no. 4, ill. (color), dates it circa 1780?; deems it closer to Bidauld than Valenciennes in style.
Emilia Calbi inPaysages d'Italie: Les peintres du plein air (1780–1830). Ed. Anna Ottani Cavina. Exh. cat., Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. Paris, 2001, p. , identifies the town as Subiaco; states that this sketch could date to the late 1780s, during Dunouy's first Italian sojourn; notes that the artist exhibited another painting of Subiaco in the Paris Salon of 1798 [whereabouts unknown].
Yukitaka Kohari inPlein-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850. Exh. cat., Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. Shizuoka, 2004, p. 51, no. 13, ill. (color), dates it circa 1780s.
Jérôme Binda inLandscape Painting in France and Italy 1780–1860. Exh. cat., Salander-O'Reilly Galleries. New York, 2006, p. 24, under no. 9, accepts the attribution to Dunouy; suggests that it was executed with the aid of a camera obscura, noting that one was included in the artist's atelier sale; compares it to a more loosely painted treatment of the same subject depicted from a different point of view.
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. 14–15, 45, 48 n. 14, fig. 11 (color).