True-to-life plein air painting in Europe Exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


A new exhibition entitled True to Nature is on view at the Fitzwilliam Museum from Tuesday 3rd May to Monday 29th August.

Rough Seas by a Jetty by Carl Frederik Sorensen (1818-1879)

The exhibition brings together for the first time more than 120 luminous plein air paintings from the remarkable collections of the Fondation Custodia in Paris, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Fitz in Cambridge, along with a prestigious private collection of oil sketches that have never been shown to the public.

The exhibition shows the development of plein air painting throughout Europe in the 19th century. The practice of plein air painting developed rapidly across Europe during this period as artists sought new ways of depicting the natural world.

East Bergholt by John Constable (1776-1837)
East Bergholt by John Constable (1776-1837)
View of the Monastery of Sant'Onofrio on the Janiculum, Rome by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875)
View of the Monastery of Sant’Onofrio on the Janiculum, Rome by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875)

Over the course of the century it became firmly entrenched in the teaching of art academies and embraced enthusiastically by French, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch and British painters, although Italy was at the heart of this tradition.

Artists from across Europe traveled south to paint the monuments of Rome and the landscapes of the Campagna, the countryside surrounding the city. Spectacular monuments testified to the great classical civilizations of the past, but the city itself had a unique picturesque appeal.

Paintings in the exhibition are presented thematically according to natural phenomena: sky and atmospheric effects, rocks and caves, volcanoes, trees and changing bodies of water – raging waves, waterfalls and the still, reflective surface of lakes and rock pools.

Castel Sant'Elmo, from Capodimonte by Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Castel Sant’Elmo, from Capodimonte by Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Sky study with a sunbeam by John Constable (1776-1837)
Sky study with a sunbeam by John Constable (1776-1837)

Artists’ eagerness to deal directly with nature, to observe and capture it “in the field”, was reflected in developments in the natural sciences. Just as painters amassed outdoor studies for reference and to remember the authenticity of their experience, so geologists, botanists, and others—including artists like Valenciennes and Constable—amassed collections of minerals, rocks, and botanical specimens.

This fluidity between art and science allows the exhibition to be explored through a wide range of supplementary material, including rare field notebooks by Adam Sedgwick, one of the founders of modern geology; a dazzling group of minerals on loan from the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences that bears his name, scoria (lava rock) collected after the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1794, and an exceptional group of volcanic rock specimens collected on field trips around the World, from Hawaii to Java and Mount Erebus in Antarctica.

Jane Munro, exhibition co-curator and custodian of paintings, drawings and prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, said: “One of the few activities that has remained constant throughout the pandemic has been the opportunity to get outside.

“We were drawn closer to nature and instilled an appreciation for beauty that is all too often overlooked in our busy lives. The nature on our doorstep became a calming, an ointment. In these jewel-like paintings, the thrill of the artists’ encounter with nature can be felt firsthand.

“Visitors will see through their eyes, feel their wonder as they take in storm-torn skies, clear rock pools, the dappled shadow of a treetop, or the awe-inspiring sight of an erupting volcano, and admire their commitment to staying true to nature.”

The court of Augustus Leopold Egg (1816-1863)
The court of Augustus Leopold Egg (1816-1863)
Young Man Lying on the Hills by Théodore Caruelle d'Aligny (1798-1871)
Young Man Lying on the Hills by Théodore Caruelle d’Aligny (1798-1871)

True-to-life plein air painting in Europe 1780-1870 runs from May 3rd to August 29th. Tickets are free and go on general sale today (Monday 4 April). For more information visit

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