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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.1

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.”2 It was bought by Catherine II, and shows a stormy landscape with Dido and Aeneas (Jones was not a figure painter, so the figures were supplied by his friend John Hamilton Mortimer). Another of these stormy, sublime landscapes (into which Mortimer inserted a scene from The Winter’s Tale) was bought from Jones by Sir George Beaumont, the landowner, painter, and collector. Presumably Wordsworth and Coleridge would have known this picture.

Just how obscure and little valued as an artist Jones was until the middle of this century may be gauged with almost forensic accuracy from the introduction Paul Oppé wrote to his edition of Jones’s Memoirs, in which he quotes, apparently unquestioningly, Joseph Farington’s judgment that Jones’s paintings were “very cold—like china,” and includes the faint praise that “by the time that Jones reached Naples he could find a picture in a landscape and note it with a spirited touch.”3 The reason why this is such a good indicator is that Oppé himself was a great expert on British watercolors (his vast collection of at least 3000 items has just been acquired by the Tate) and would certainly have recognized Jones’s originality if there had been any evidence available. Oppé was interested in Jones’s Memoirs for the light they shed on other painters and on the world of the Grand Tour, and he was quite right. The Memoirs are vividly written, with many curious touches, as, for instance, the description of the scene painter Nicholas Dall, who “dyed of Discontent & despair from the reflection that when all the houses in the Kingdom were full of Pictures,—which he thought, in a short time, would be the case—there would be no room for any more.”

Three years after the publication of Jones’s memoirs, in 1954, an auction at Christie’s included “The property of a Lady, whose husband was a descendant of Thomas Jones, a pupil of Richard Wilson, R.A.”4 This catalog provides further forensic evidence. Nearly all the lots were snapped up by the great drawings expert James Byam Shaw, working for the London dealer Colnaghi. These were the now-famous oil sketches, making their first public appearance. Not one of them fetched as much as twenty guineas. Afterward John Gere, who began collecting oil sketches in 1956, would kick himself for not having made any purchases at this sale, for not having seen the significance of these apparently unique works. It was only, he later recalled, after seeing the sketches by Valenciennes in the Louvre and comparing them with one of the same artist’s full-scale idealized paintings, and after reading an article by Lionello Venturi on the CroÌÀ bequest (it had been published in the Art Quarterly in 1941, but Gere did not read it until 1955)—only after all this that he began to see that

the sketches were paintings of a unique kind, resembling drawings (my own professional field) in their freshness, their informality, their directness of vision, and their emphasis on effects of light and atmosphere, but having a resonance of color beyond the reach of all but the greatest watercolorists.5

Oppé clearly felt the same, for it was in 1954-1955 that he purchased the four Joneses (three of them oil sketches) which have now passed with his collection into the Tate. And it was in 1954 that K.T. Parker at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford bought the dreamy Neapolitan oil sketch which, to the modern eye, reads like a study in rectangles, a construction of receding planes of light.

By now, then, we have four well-known names “on the case”—Oppé, Gere, Parker, and Byam Shaw—but it was not until 1970 that Ralph Edwards organized the first exhibition devoted to Jones’s work, and the oil sketch itself began to gain definition as a subject. What had held people back—it turns out in retrospect—was a question of taxonomy. As Gere wrote:

These small paintings, usually on paper, are not pictures in the sense of having been intended for exhibition and for display on the walls of picture galleries or private houses. They were not even meant to be framed. They were part of an artist’s working-material, kept in a portfolio in his studio and shown only to pupils and fellow-artists. Curators of paintings dismissed them as not being pictures in the true sense, since they had the function of drawings; curators of drawings tended to reject them because of their technique. The landscape oil-sketch was thus relegated to the critical limbo from which it has only recently emerged.6

This question of taxonomy must have arisen when the National Gallery in London purchased its Thomas Jones sketch Wall in Naples (to be seen in the “Light of Italy” show—it is the one showing nothing but pockmarked wall, two uninformative windows, and some washing on a balcony; see previous page). The National Gallery does not, in principle, collect works on paper (apart from very, very grand cartoons by Leonardo da Vinci or the Carracci) and even, quite recently, divested itself of some drawings, sending them in the direction of the British Museum. But this small clothesline in Naples must have seemed more desirable than sticking to principle.

The sketch in question had been seen in America before the National Gallery acquired it: it was one of the star items in a show put on by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1981, curated by Peter Galassi and called “Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography” (appreciatively reviewed in these pages by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner).7 The same pair of rooftop studies by Valenciennes I mentioned earlier were also in this show, appealing to the taste of anyone with an affection for Edward Hopper, seeming to confound our sense of eighteenth-century decorum and composition, and illustrating the thesis of the exhibition, which was that (as Rosen and Zerner summed it up)

the freedom and directness of photography, in order to be communicated, depended on certain modes of presentation, certain methods of cropping and points of view, that were already developed earlier in a particular kind of painting and taken over by photography.

Jones’s Wall in Naples was thus presented as a forerunner of such photographs as Auguste Salzmann’s Jerusalem, the Temple Wall, West Side (1853-1854), in which the subject of the photograph is nothing but the huge rugged stones and the plants in their interstices.

It seems to have been an excellent exhibition, and the catalog essay remains thrilling. Galassi’s subsequent career (writing his book on Corot while becoming curator of photography at MOMA) can be seen as a heroic rebellion against the vices of taxonomy. While there may be sound practical, curatorial reasons for storing works on paper in one place, oil paintings in another, and photographs in yet another, the brain itself is a place where all these items may be set side by side. 8 Galassi is guest curator of “In the Light of Italy,” which builds on and exemplifies the work of his Corot book, while adding (and this shows how the subject of oil sketches is still expanding) interesting new material. In 1991 it was known that Claude-Joseph Vernet had produced oil sketches on canvas, but none had been found. Item two in the catalog is the first such sketch to be identified.


A sketch made by an Englishman in Rome around 1650 shows a box designed for painting trips in the countryside.9 The opened lid provided the easel, onto which the paper would have been pinned. There is a section for “pincils,” a word which one must be attentive to in texts from this period, since it normally seems to mean paintbrushes (pinceaux). There is a section for an “oyle glasse” and one for paint rags, but the majority of the base of the box accommodates the palette. Since no provision is made for pigments, it is suggested that the artist would charge his palette with paint before setting off out of town—a recipe for disaster, one might think. A century later, Alexander Cozens jots down a diagram of a box for open-air painting, which is interpreted by Philip Conisbee, the curator of “In the Light of Italy,” as showing “paper mounted in the center of a rectangular board, which serves both as easel and paintbox. It is surrounded by twenty small pots for containing and mixing pigments….” This seems to imply that the whole contraption is kept horizontal, and one can’t help wondering whether the blobs Conisbee interprets as paint pots are not simply piles of pigment. In the studio, it was traditional practice for the artist or his assistant to set the palette at the beginning of the day, laying on the pigments in a given, preferred order. So perhaps it would not have seemed odd to take a ready-charged palette out into the countryside. Perhaps it would have felt odd to work in any other way.

  1. 1

    Peter Galassi, Corot in Italy, pp. 8-9.

  2. 2

    Brian Allen and Larissa Dukelskaya, editors, British Art Treasures from Russian Imperial Collections in the Hermitage, catalog no. 1 (Yale University Press, 1996).

  3. 3

    Thomas Jones, Memoirs, with an introduction by A.P. Oppé (London: Walpole Society, Vol. 32, 1946-1948, 1951.)

  4. 4

    Christie’s, July 2, 1954, lots nos. 211- 218, 220-223.

  5. 5

    Philip Conisbee, Sarah Faunce, and Jeremy Strick, In the Light of Italy, p. 24. Gere died before he could finish his introduction to the catalog. Galassi quotes from his draft essay.

  6. 6

    Conisbee, Faunce, and Strick, In the Light of Italy, pp. 25-26.

  7. 7

    The New York Review, December 3, 1981, p. 31.

  8. 8

    Unlike a watercolor, an oil painting left in the dark will suffer from a yellowing of its areas of white pigment. Masterpieces in oils, stored too long in the bank vaults of Switzerland and Japan, will take a couple of weeks in good light to regain some of their vividness. An oil sketch on paper—as long as the paper itself is entirely covered with paint—should benefit from light levels which would be frowned upon in the case of drawings and watercolors. The beneficial bleaching effect of light upon white paint was demonstrated to me at the Tate by the simple act of opening a door: where the white paint on the jamb was normally kept in the dark, it had yellowed.

  9. 9

    For this sketch by Richard Symonds and the one mentioned below by A. Cozens, see Conisbee, Faunce, and Strick, In the Light of Italy, p. 31.

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