In 2003, the Metropolitan Museum acquired a significant group of paintings spanning a key period in European history, beginning with the advent of the French Revolution and concluding with the reign of Louis-Philippe. Assembled by the New York connoisseur Wheelock Whitney between 1972 and 2000, this collection reveals a rich tradition of painting out of doors nearly a century before Impressionism, thus amplifying the role of the natural world as a source of inspiration to artists on the cusp of the modern epoch. This exhibition of fifty paintings is the first to be devoted entirely to the Whitney collection and includes examples by numerous painters who are thought to be represented in no other American museum.
The Whitney collection is remarkable for its concentration of plein-air oil studies by artists ranging from Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes to Camille Corot. This is complemented by a strong representation of finished landscapes, history subjects, genre, and portraiture: in short, the full scope of painting that one could expect to find in a Parisian cabinet d'amateur, or private collection, in the first half of the nineteenth century. Crossing the boundaries of subject matter and lying at the heart of the collection is a group of paintings executed by northern artists drawn to Rome by its combination of antiquity and natural beauty. A number of these painters received from the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, the Rome Prize to study painting in Italy, for example, François-Édouard Picot, Léon Pallière, Charles Rémond, and André Giroux. Others traveled there independently, such as Joseph Bidauld, Simon Denis, François-Marius Granet, and Théodore Caruelle Aligny.
The exhibition also illuminates one of the most popular developments in French painting during the 1820s, the depiction of Italian peasants, brigands, and clerics, by such representative figures as Claude Bonnefond, Jean-François Montessuy, and Louis-Léopold Robert.
Simon Denis (Flemish, 1755–1813). View on the Quirinal Hill, Rome (detail), 1800. Oil on paper, laid down on canvas; 11 5/8 x 16 1/8 in. (29.5 x 41 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Whitney Collection, Gift of Wheelock Whitney III, and Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh, by exchange, 2003 (2003.42.20)