This unfinished oil sketch on canvas is an early work by Paul Huet, an important figure in French nineteenth-century landscape painting. While a student, he often visited the park at Saint-Cloud, in the west of Paris, where he sometimes painted outdoors – which he probably did here.
A pioneer of Romantic landscape painting, Huet was particularly interested in capturing the changing moods evoked by landscape through the play of light. Although he abandoned this sketch, it shows his method of painting, particularly his use of thickly painted bands of bright and dark greens to recreate the dense foliage of the towering trees that almost fill the canvas. He was a friend of the British landscape artist Richard Parkes Bonington, and of Eugène Delacroix, and his working method and technique prefigured the work of the Barbizon artists of the mid-nineteenth century, and the later Impressionists.
This unfinished oil sketch on canvas is an early work by Paul Huet, a leading figure of French nineteenth-century landscape painting. While a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1820s, he often visited the park at Saint-Cloud, one of his favourite locations. Situated in the west of Paris, it had expansive views across the river Seine and the city. The park was a royal domain on the site of Château de Saint-Cloud, the residence of several royal and imperial families from the sixteenth century until its destruction in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war.
A pioneer of Romantic landscape painting, Huet was especially interested in capturing the changing moods evoked by landscape through the atmospheric effects of light and shade. He sometimes worked en plein air (outdoors) – as is very likely the case with this painting, whose bright freshness contrasts with the darker mood of many of his larger, more finished works. Although abandoned, this sketch demonstrates his method of painting. Applying lighter paint over darker areas of shadow, Huet builds up structure with vertical bands of yellow-greens and darker greens to suggest the towering trees that almost fill the canvas. The use of green-black paint, particularly between the trees and behind their trunks, adds depth to the scene. Between the tree trunks, we catch a glimpse of a fountain. A variety of brushstrokes recreate the different textures of dense foliage. Quick, twisting dabs of the brush produce a translucent feathery effect – for example, in the branches overhanging against the sky. This is enhanced by traces of the brush’s bristles in the paint. Elsewhere, including the left side of the incomplete tree on the right, the paint is laid on more thickly, in short strokes, to create a denser surface. Huet conceded that he did not always find it easy to paint in front of nature, and we can only speculate as to why he abandoned this painting.
While at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Huet was enrolled in the studio of the history painter, Baron Gros, from 1819 to 1822. There he met another student, the young English artist Richard Parkes Bonington, and the two frequently painted together in Normandy. Huet was deeply influenced not only by Bonington’s habit of painting outdoors and his use of watercolour (a medium which he adopted), but also by landscapes exhibited by British artists, including Constable, at the Paris Salons of 1824 and 1827. In 1822 Huet met the young Eugène Delacroix and the two became lifelong friends. He is credited with painting part of the landscape in Delacroix’s Portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter (1826), which is also in the National Gallery’s collection.
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