Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Aesthetic of the Sketch in Nineteenth-Century France

The making of esquisses, or preparatory oil sketches, as studies for finished paintings emerged in Italy during the sixteenth century. Widespread throughout Europe just a century later, the practice was disseminated by artists who trained in Italy, notably Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Charles Le Brun (1619–1690). Appointed director of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648, Le Brun introduced the sketch to French artistic practice, where it became a crucial part of a painter’s training in both official and private academies.

The esquisse was typically a small-scale, rapidly executed work intended to preserve an artist’s première pensée, or initial conception, of a subject. Its primary function was to establish a picture’s basic composition and coloring, and artists eschewed detail in favor of constructing loose forms in unmixed colors and broad, fluid brushstrokes, as can be seen in Pierre Charles Jombert’s The Punishment of the Arrogant Niobe by Diana and Apollo from about 1772 (1983.426). Not intended for exhibition nor considered works of art in their own right, esquisses served as rough guides in the production of larger, more finished paintings.

By the eighteenth century, the freedom of handling generally associated with the sketch began to appear in finished works, such as the immensely popular series of paintings by Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) known as figures de fantaisie (37.118). It was during this period that the inherent qualities of the sketch—namely the lively effect produced by its energetic brushwork, vibrant colors, and bold contrasts—began to be admired.

Art writers and philosophers such as Denis Diderot (1713–1784) theorized the aesthetic of the sketch, whose originality and spontaneity was seen as the antithesis of the refined and highly finished pictures exhibited by the Academy. In his review of the 1767 Salon, Diderot asked, “Why does a beautiful sketch please us more than a beautiful painting?” With this simple question, he expressed what would become the center of a heated debate that dominated artistic production and criticism in France throughout much of the nineteenth century.

The “sketch-finish” conflict, as it came to be formulated by artists and art critics in the 1830s, stemmed from the Academy’s clear separation of the preparatory phases of painting—the making of drawn and painted sketches and studies—from the finished work of art. Viewed by academicians and art critics as an artist’s personal reaction to a subject, the sketch was considered to be a sign of genius and originality. However, it was thought that only by reworking the initial impression into a refined work of art could an artist show his intellect and mastery of painting techniques.

This division of artistic processes, which culminated in the practice of Neoclassical artists in the late eighteenth century, was subsequently challenged by the emergence of the Romantic aesthetic in the 1820s. Opposing the polished surfaces of Neoclassical paintings, Romantic artists deliberately adopted a looser execution and a more vibrant palette in order to achieve pictorial expression. In retaining aspects of the sketch—such as freely painted, visible brushstrokes—in their finished paintings, artists such as Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) and Théodore Gericault (1791–1824) sought to convey sincerity of emotion and their personal vision through facture and color (29.100.131; 1989.183).

The Romantics’ embrace of the sketch aesthetic was perceived by most artists, critics, and conservatives as a collapse of traditional academic values. In the 1820s, the conservative critic Étienne-Jean Delécluze, a former pupil of Jacques Louis David (1748–1825), repeatedly attacked Delacroix for the sketchlike aspects of his history paintings. However, while Delacroix’s Salon paintings did much to bring the sketch-finish conflict to the fore, it was in the genre of landscape painting that the debate was most intense.

The development of the sketch aesthetic in the nineteenth century coincided with the rise in status of landscape painting, elevated in 1816 with the establishment of the paysage historique, or historical landscape, as a category in the prestigious Prix de Rome painting competition. The practice of making sketches became a mandatory step in every phase of the contest, and the Academy responded by implementing its own sketch contests in history painting and historical landscapes. Central to the landscape competitions was the importance of studying nature directly through the practice of making plein air études, or small studies painted outdoors.

The primary purpose of the étude, as advocated by the theoretician Pierre Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), was to establish the principal tones of the sky, earth, and water through the lighting of the landscape at a particular moment, as in Valenciennes’ Banks of the Rance, Brittany from about 1785 (2003.42.54; see also 1989.138, 1980.203.4). Études generally did not serve as compositional models for particular paintings. Rather, these studies of different kinds of terrain and effects of light would be idealized or embellished by classically trained painters in landscapes produced entirely in the studio. For example, Corot incorporated his study of a large oak tree in the Forest of Fontainebleau into the background of his imaginary historical landscape Hagar in the Wilderness (1979.404; 38.64).

By the late 1820s, études were admired for their vibrant and truthful renditions of nature and were frequently exhibited next to finished landscapes in the annual Salon. However, it was not until 1830 that an emerging group of independent landscape painters, many of whom would form the Barbizon School, deliberately combined the qualities of the étude with that of the finished landscape in their work. Alternately referred to as naturalists and realists, Camille Corot (1796–1875), Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Peña (1808–1876), Jules Dupré (1811–1889), Théodore Rousseau (1812–1867), and Paul Huet (1803–1869) aimed for the immediacy, freshness, and optical truth embodied in the étude in their finished paintings.

Landscapes such as Corot’s Honfleur: Calvary (1974.3), Diaz’s Autumn: The Woodland Pond (17.120.214), and Rousseau’s Edge of the Woods at Monts-Girard, Fontainebleau Forest (96.27) reveal the greater importance given to the overall pictorial effect of light and atmosphere as conveyed through varied and looser brushstrokes. Though works such as these bear characteristics of the outdoor study, they should not be mistaken for direct transcriptions of the world. Produced in the studio, paintings such as Rousseau’s Forest in Winter at Sunset (11.4) and Sunset near Arbonne (25.110.4) present a close observation of nature filtered through the artist’s temperament and personal vision.

The popularity of the sketch aesthetic was crystallized under the July Monarchy (1830–48), a liberal regime that supported diverse artistic styles. Huet and Rousseau enjoyed considerable official patronage during this period despite the fact that their landscapes were frequently rejected by the government-sponsored Salon because of their lack of finish. Yet it was precisely this quality—the emphasis on brushwork and the artist’s hand—that added to their popularity, particularly with amateur collectors and connoisseurs. By mid-century, Rousseau and Diaz were successfully selling their sketches and studies in art galleries and private auctions, such as the former’s Path among the Rocks (14.40.814), and steadily gaining the appreciation of middle-class Salon visitors.

By mid-century, official support and popular preference for the optical effects of the landscape étude resolved the sketch-finish conflict as it eliminated the Academy’s separation of the making of painted studies from that of finished works. The sketch aesthetic would come to embody a fusion of both phases of painterly production in the 1850s when landscape painters like Charles-François Daubigny (1817–1878) and Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) eliminated the preparatory step of making an esquisse or étude, painting their initial impressions directly upon the canvas in order to preserve the immediacy of the sketch in the final work (14.40.818; 25.110.3; 1995.537). The development and eventual acceptance of the sketch aesthetic during the first half of the nineteenth century paved the way to Impressionism, a movement based upon the spontaneity and freedom of handling associated with the painted oil sketch.