Who Was Thomas Jones?

In The Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting 26-September 2, 1996; the Brooklyn Museum of Art, October 11, 1996-January 12, 1997; and the St. Louis Art Museum, February 21-May 18, 1997

exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., May

Corot in Italy: Open-Air Painting and the Classical Landscape Tradition

by Peter Galassi
Yale University, 258 pp., $30.00 (paper)

In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting

catalog of the exhibition, by Philip Conisbee, by Sarah Faunce, by Jeremy Strick, with guest curator Peter Galassi
National Gallery of Art, Washington/Yale University Press, 288 pp., $27.00 (paper)

Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography

catalog of the exhibition, by Peter Galassi
Museum of Modern Art, 152 pp.

The traveling exhibition “In the Light of Italy” (recently at the Brook-lyn Museum of Art and shortly to reopen at the St. Louis Art Museum) features half a dozen luminous oil sketches of Naples made in the 1780s by Thomas Jones. A further two of these extraordinary studies, in which the artist seems to compose his scene at random, and to lavish his attention on the mundane details of crumbling walls and rooftops of indeterminate age, were included in the Tate’s recent “Grand Tour” show. In both exhibitions, Jones was paired with a scarcely less remarkable artist, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes: in London we saw his twin views of a roof-top with a clothesline at two different times of day; in Brooklyn there were views in and around Rome, and another of these twinned views of the same site under different conditions of light—Rocca di Papa in the Mist and Rocca di Papa under Clouds.

The sketches were roughly contemporary, but there is no evidence that either artist knew the other’s work. The two men have this important feature in common, that they did their sketches in oil on paper, a technique which aids speed of execution, since oil paint dries swiftly on paper. The paint is applied directly. There is no preliminary drawing, and so the technique is quite different from that used by both artists when they sketched with pen or pencil on paper, composing the elements of the scene in strong, calligraphic outline (even when these outlines were later to be painted over in watercolor). The oil sketch on paper is entirely a matter of brushwork, a study in light and color.

A further thing the oil sketches of Jones and Valenciennes have in common is that they were only discovered in this century. Valenciennes had once been well known as the leader of a neoclassical school of landscape artists, but his reputation was at its nadir when the bequest of the Princesse Louis de CroÌÀ came to the Louvre in 1930 and the Italian landscape sketches (which had all been in the same single collection since their purchase by the princess’s ancestor, the Comte de l’Espine, in 1819) were exhibited for the first time. People discovered that, insipid as they thought his finished works to have been, Valenciennes was, in private, a “devoted realist.” This gave, as Peter Galassi explains in Corot in Italy, a new perspective for understanding Corot’s early work.

But Jones had never been well known in his lifetime, and only one of his large, mythological landscapes ever made it into one of the great collections. By happy chance, this one exceptional painting is also currently touring the United States, and the curious can catch up with it next in Toledo, Ohio, where it is appearing in the exhibition “British Art Treasures from Russian Imperial Collections in the Hermitage.” It was bought by Catherine II, and shows a stormy landscape with Dido and Aeneas (Jones was …

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