The Banks of the Rance, Brittany

Pierre Henri de Valenciennes (French, Toulouse 1750–1819 Paris)
possibly 1785
Oil on paper, laid down on canvas
8 3/8 x 19 3/8 in. (21.3 x 49.2 cm)
Credit Line:
The Whitney Collection, Gift of Wheelock Whitney III, and Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh, by exchange, 2003

Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 805
This study is the product of one of the earliest known plein-air painting excursions on the Channel coast. With a painterly sensibility honed by the direct observation of nature, Valenciennes sketched the light, atmosphere, and swiftly moving water at the mouth of the river Rance. This exercise was intended to train his eye and hand to capture such fleeting effects so that he could draw from the experience when painting in the studio. The investigatory spirit of Valenciennes’s sketches, painted in France and Italy, mark them as signal achievements of the Enlightenment.
This oil study comes from a group of twenty-six by Valenciennes that were discovered in 1973 and exhibited in the same year (see Exh. Paris 1973–74). Thereafter, ten were identified as views painted in Brittany, including this sketch of the mouth of the river Rance near Dinan (checklist of Exh. Paris 1973–74, annotated by René Le Bihan, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Documentation). None of the Breton studies is dated, and only one hypothesis for situating them precisely has been proposed: Valenciennes may have visited Brittany in 1785 (Lacambre 1978). They were undoubtedly painted before 1800, making them the product of one of the earliest known plein-air painting excursions on the Channel coast. These sketches are charged with the same investigatory spirit that make Valenciennes’s earlier Italian sketches (the majority are in the Louvre) one of the Enlightenment’s most outstanding achievements in the arena of painting.

From the top to the bottom of this sketch Valenciennes differentiated between the sky, where haze is indicated by the white of the support showing through the thin layer of blue paint, and the water, where a reflection of the haze is indicated by touches of white paint. From left to right (taking advantage of the cast of sunlight) he used aerial perspective, purging color from the distant horizon to enhance the illusion of spatial recession. The size of the brushstrokes employed to render faraway details is the same as those used to depict the trees and rocks in the near distance. All these elements signal Valenciennes’s attention to an economy of means and the spontaneity of his approach. In his highly influential treatise first published in 1800, Élemens de perspective pratique: à l’usage des artistes, suivis de réflexions et conseils à un élève sur la peinture, et particulièrement sur le genre du paysage, Valenciennes advised painters "to seize Nature" by sketching "maquettes made in haste" (p. 404, under "Etudes d’après Nature"). Toward this end, he recommended that painters not concern themselves with finish in the conventional sense. In the present sketch, he depicted the swirls and eddies of moving water through spirited brushwork, a combination of dabs, lines, and comma-like strokes. These markings were not merely incidental to the demands of painting quickly: they derive from the close examination of a natural phenomenon that a landscape painter might confront in the course of his work. Valenciennes’s prose is dry and his summations may strike the modern reader as self-evident, but they are based on the sort of close observation evident in this sketch of the Rance. In a passage that relates directly to the detail reproduced here, he differentiated between the causes of various effects seen on the surface of moving water, describing in detail how it is disturbed as it flows over submerged rocks (p. 216, under "Réflexion des objets dans l’eau").

Sketches like this one, executed on a sheet of paper small enough to be practical in an impromptu situation, were not exhibited nor were they meant to be. Rather, they were exercises intended to educate the eye and the hand so that the artist would have a body of experience and a repertoire of motifs to draw upon later, within the confines of his studio.

[Asher Ethan Miller 2013]
?Pierre-Charles de L'Espine, Paris; Lachèvre, Rouen (until about 1973; sold to Bayser); [Galerie de Bayser, Paris, 1973–74]; [Galerie du Fleuve, Paris, until 1975; sold in January to Whitney]; Wheelock Whitney III, New York (from 1975)
Paris. Galerie de Bayser. "Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes," December 15, 1973–January 15, 1974, checklist no. 19 (as "Bord de mer").

Paris. Galerie du Fleuve. "Aspects du paysage neo-classique en France de 1790 à 1855," May 30–June 22, 1974, no. 27 (as “Les bords de Rance”).

New York. Colnaghi. "Claude to Corot: The Development of Landscape Painting in France," November 1–December 15, 1990, no. 53 (as "The Banks of the Rance," lent by a private collector, New York).

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. 5).

Marie-Madeleine Aubrun. Aspects du paysage neo-classique en France de 1790 à 1855. Exh. cat., Galerie du Fleuve. Paris, 1974, no. 27, ill.

Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée. French Painting, 1774–1830: The Age of Revolution. Exh. cat., Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. 1975, p. 634 [French ed. "de David à Delacroix, la peinture française de 1774 à 1830," Paris, 1974, p. 627], remarks that ten studies, of which this is one, appeared on the Paris art market in December 1973, with Breton sites, particularly the mouth of the Rance river and the area around Saint-Malo; comments that until then no one knew that Valenciennes had been in Brittany so early and that the works are all undated and difficult to fit into his oeuvre.

Geneviève Lacambre. "Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes en Italie: Un journal de voyage inedit." Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire de l'Art Français, année 1978, (1980), pp. 141, 143, 171 n. 26, dates the group of studies 1785, after Valenciennes returned from Rome; mentions the ten studies of places around Brittany and remarks that René le Bihan identified many of the sites, around the mouth of the Rance, and places a few of them in various collections.

Paula Rea Radisich. "Eighteenth-Century 'Plein-air' Painting and the Sketches of Pierre Henri de Valenciennes." Art Bulletin 64 (March 1982), p. 103.

Margaret Smith. Claude to Corot: The Development of Landscape Painting in France. Exh. cat., Colnaghi. New York, 1990, p. 252, no. 53, colorpl. 53, remarks that it was not until this cache of ten oil studies was found in 1973 that it was known that Valenciennes was one of the few painters to have visited Britanny before the nineteenth century, probably about 1785; notes that these plein-air studies were his way of observing and gathering information about the natural world and were useful to him in his formal compositions; states that the Rance is a small, winding river until it reaches Dinan, where it forms a wider channel that extends to the English Channel, and identifies this as the mouth of the Rance where it spills into the sea, with the west bank with small islands in the Channel visible to the right, yet comments that the painting is certainly not topographical; notes that Valenciennes strictly limited the time he spent to execute these studies to no more than two hours to keep the lighting consistent; comments that he characterized the changing light in terms of a spiritual experience; notes that although the studies were not officially exhibited, Valenciennes displayed them for the instruction of his pupils, including Michallon and Bertin.

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. 8–9, 47, figs. 5 (color) and 6 (photomicrograph detail, color).