This small oil sketch on paper, mounted on canvas, shows a dense mass of trees in a deep ravine. At the bottom of the picture some pale pink flowering plants suggest that we are at the edge of a cliff looking across a gully that drops steeply below us. Including these flowers and the tall tree on the right increases the effect of distance between the immediate foreground and the trees on the other side of the ravine.
As a landscape painter, Jean-Michel Cels would have made small oil studies on location directly from nature either on paper, such as this one, or on a small panel. Around 20 of his oil sketches of clouds and trees are known to exist. They were all produced between 1848 and 1852, when he was his early twenties. This study was probably painted in Belgium, possibly in the area around Brussels, where he had his studio.
This small oil sketch on paper, mounted on canvas at a later date, shows a dense mass of trees in a deep ravine. At the bottom of the picture you can just see the tops of some pale pink flowering plants, suggesting that we are at the edge of a cliff (which continues on the left of the painting) looking across a gully that drops steeply below us. Most of the picture is filled with the dense foliage of the trees on the other side of the gully, which are set against a light creamy-brown sky. Although Jean-Michel Cels was a skilled painter of cloud studies, he gives little attention to the sky here, which is simply a neutral backdrop.
By painting the individual petals and leaves of the flowers at the bottom of the painting, Cels heightens an impression of distance between the immediate foreground and the trees on the other side of the ravine. Although the picture is less than 30 centimetres wide, there is a strong sense of the deep gulf that separates the foreground from the bank of trees in the distance. In effect, there is an empty space at the centre of the painting, encircled by two arcs. A descending arc, formed by the cliff face as it drops down on the left and by the tall tree rising from the bushes on the right, is mirrored by a gently ascending arc created by the distant treeline across the top of the picture.
Cels’s method of applying paint further enhances this play between proximity and distance. For the trees in the gully, he first applied a dark green underpaint. He then added highlights of lighter greens to create a relief effect of layered foliage. He reversed the process for the tall tree on the right, as its dark green leaves are placed against the bright green of the tree behind it. Cels used a stippling effect for its foliage by applying small horizontal dabs of paint, perhaps with the end of a small bristle brush. For the foliage elsewhere, a more loaded brush was used to build up the surface with multiple dabs of paint. Longer, more fluid, strokes of brown and yellow ochre were used for the side of the gully.
Artists had made sketches directly from nature since the seventeenth century, although the practice became more popular from the mid-eighteenth century, particularly among artists working in Italy. Cels’s father, Cornelius Cels, an academic painter who had spent seven years in Italy, most likely introduced his son to painting outdoors. As a landscape painter, Jean-Michel would have made small oil studies on location directly from nature either on paper, such as this one, or on a small panel. Paul Huet’s Trees in the Park at Saint-Cloud is a similar example.
Around 20 oil sketches of clouds and trees by Cels are known to exist. All date to between 1848 and 1852, when he was in his early twenties. This study was probably painted in Belgium, possibly in the area around Brussels, where he had his studio.
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