11 February 2016
Rarely seen work on show in The Mesdag Collection in The Hague from 5 March to 5 June 2016.
From 5 March to 5 June 2016, The Mesdag Collection in The Hague is showing Nature’s Picture, an exhibition on the unique encounter between landscape photography and the art of painting in the 19th century in France and the Netherlands. Painters and photographers shared a fascination for nature and the specific effects of light and shade. The landscape was one of the places where the paths of photography and painting crossed. This exhibition presents paintings from The Mesdag Collection’s Barbizon collection in combination with early French and Dutch landscape photographs. These rare photographs, some of which have never before been exhibited in the Netherlands, are on loan from such collections as the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.
Side by side in the Forest of Fontainebleau
From around 1830, French painters started to gather in the area around the village of Barbizon, on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. Drawn by the area’s unspoilt landscape, much of the work by the Barbizon painters was created en plein air and showed nature in all its facets. Their work took a pioneering approach: rather than idealising the landscape, they portrayed it just as it appeared to them. Following the example of these painters, by the end of the 1840s photographers also began flocking to Fontainebleau. The photographers and painters worked side by side in the forest and influenced each other. This exhibition shows how large specimen trees, small lakes and towering rock formations offer diverse motifs in the arts of painting and photography.
Soon after the inception of photography in 1839, this new medium was compared to the art of painting. The early French landscape photographers looked to the Barbizon school of painters for their subjects and compositions. One photograph in particular in the exhibition, by Gustave Le Gray, clearly shows the influence of the painters in this respect. This famous photographer was one of the first to follow the painters to the Forest of Fontainebleau. However, photographic technology in the 1850s was not sufficiently advanced to be able to accurately capture both the sky and the landscape. This is why most of the landscape photographs in the exhibition show white, cloudless skies. Le Gray used an innovative technique to combine negatives showing the sky and the landscape, in order to produce an effect as close to nature as possible.
Landscape painters were in turn fascinated by the new opportunities offered by photography. They started to collect photographs to use as study material as a supplement to their sketchbooks. Most of these artists’ photograph collections have been lost, but the collection of engraver and landscape artist Théophile Chauvel remains intact. For the Nature’s Picture exhibition, The Mesdag Collection has been loaned a large selection from this unique collection by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, making this the perfect opportunity to see and admire these rarely seen 19th-century examples of French landscape photography.
Rarely exhibited cliché-verre technique
The cliché-verre, or glass print, is an excellent example of the marrying of photographic technology and painting art. For a short period, this technique was in vogue among a number of French landscape painters. Printers’ ink was applied to a glass plate and then coated with white lead powder. The artist scratched a drawing in the coating using an etching needle. After this, the drawing was printed using light-sensitive paper. As the print did not look like a photograph, but wasn’t a traditional engraving either, the cliché-verre was not much in demand among art collectors. This meant that few artists used this technique in their work. The artists who experimented the most with cliché-verre were the painters Camille Corot and Charles-François Daubigny. Their glass plate prints are little known and seldom exhibited. Nature’s Picture features five of these clichés-verre from the collection of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.
Photographer-painters in the Netherlands
A small number of Dutch painters are known to have used photography. Nature’s Picture shows photographs by the painters Louis Apol and George Hendrik Breitner. At the end of the 19th century these artists took up the camera themselves, using their photographs as an aid in the studio to help with their painting. This can be clearly seen in the landscape photographs by Apol: the prints are covered in paint marks.
Mesdag and photography
Hendrik Willem Mesdag didn’t take photographs himself, but he did use photography for his famous work Panorama of Scheveningen (Panorama Mesdag, The Hague). In 1880, he commissioned the photographer Heinrich Wilhelm Wollrabe in The Hague to take a series of photographs from the Seinpost Dune. Mesdag used the prints as an aid in creating his masterpiece, for example to check that he had the perspective right. These photographs can now be seen for the first time in The Mesdag Collection, next to Mesdag’s painted study for the Panorama.
Containing works which have seldom or never been exhibited, Nature’s Picture shows the unique encounter between photography and the art of painting in the 19th century. The exhibition can be seen from Saturday 5 March to Sunday 5 June and is open Wednesday to Sunday from 12 pm to 5 pm.