Ger Luijten’s Open-Air Paintings at the Fondation Custodia in Paris

La Gazette Drouot
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The Fondation Custodia presents a selection of the many works that the late Ger Luijten (1956-2022) added to its collections.

John Constable (1776-1837), View of Gardens at Hampstead, with an Elder Tree, c. 1821-1822, oil on cardboard, 17.6 x 14 cm/6.92 x 5.51 in, Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection, Paris.
John Constable (1776-1837), View of Gardens at Hampstead, with an Elder Tree, c. 1821-1822, oil on cardboard, 17.6 x 14 cm/6.92 x 5.51 in, Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection, Paris.

“I try to imagine how Frits Lugt would have responded to a work and how it could fit into the collection,” said Ger Luijten, who added 10,000 pieces to the Fondation Custodia in Paris, mostly through acquisitions, but also donations. This detail, rare for a well-endowed institution, speaks volumes about how highly he regarded he was among the art-lovers and dealers who gladly gave. Luijten was a very persuasive man. The former head of the Rijksmuseum’s Graphic Arts Department had a keen eye, a wide breadth of knowledge and loved nothing more than to invite visitors to relish details, from old Parisian paving stones gathered up almost one by one for the Hôtel Turgot’s courtyard, slightly spaced apart to let vegetation peep up through the gaps between them, to a touch of color added by an artist a few centimeters from his signature. Luijten possessed the gift of sharing and drawing people’s attention. During the “True to Nature. Open-air Painting 1780-1870” exhibition, he asked visitors to consider the parasol, “an indispensable accessory of open-air painting that offered protection from the burning sun” but “could also, blown away by the wind, lead to awkward, comical situations.”

Simon Denis (1755-1813), The Waterfall of Tivoli, with Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun Drawing, 1790, oil on panel, 48.3 x 62.1 cm/19.01 x 24.44 in, Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection.
Simon Denis (1755-1813), The Waterfall of Tivoli, with Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun Drawing, 1790, oil on panel, 48.3 x 62.1 cm/19.01 x 24.44 in, Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection.

A Transversal and Transnational Vision

Plein-air painting is one of art history’s least-studied fields. While the expression “plein air” (open air) first appeared in 1891, art historians have only recently taken an interest in the genre. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2003 acquisition of the Wheelock Whitney Collection, followed in 2009 by the donation of the Eugene V. Thaw Collection to the same institution as well as to the Morgan Library and Museum, played a pivotal role, as did additions to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf at the same time. While some private holdings, such as the Valsecchi and John Gere Collections, devoted to French Prix de Rome laureates and on view at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum until June 23 (“Bruegel to Rubens”), offer researchers a wealth of material, the Fondation Custodia, which has a permanent exhibition, encourages a transversal and transnational vision of the subject. Luijten, who held dealers’ knowledge in high regard, put great stock in the opinions of Marcus Marschall, the Knoells, Bertrand Gautier, Nicolas Schwed, Florian Illies and Alice Goldet. Ms. Goldet recalls that, spurred on by a set of oil sketches donated by the foundation’s former director Carlos Van Hasselt and his companion Andrzej Nieweglowski, Luijten thought of the collection in a “European” way. He did not limit himself to the art of Italy or the early 19th century. “Ger’s background certainly had a lot to do with his original approach and open-mindedness,” says Ms. Goldet. “He was interested in the much-appreciated and well-documented artists of the Danish Golden Age, of course, but also in the second generation, purchasing works by Vilhelm Kyhn and Janus La Cour. As a graphic arts specialist, he was fascinated by the medium’s spontaneity and immediacy and even had a flair for finding spectacular works by famous artists such as Achille-Etna Michallon, John Constable, Camille Corot and Edgar Degas as well as lesser-known painters like Leopold Egg. In a few years, and well before these oil paintings were fetching high prices on the market, the contacts Ger established in France, Germany, England and Scandinavia made him a veritable ‘magnet’ for the most captivating works.”

Two Hours for a Sketch

A welcoming home inspires reciprocity, increasing the number of encounters and loan requests. The collection of open-air sketches on rue de Lille not only continues to travel, but also serves as a focal point for exchanges on the subject, especially since the “True to Nature” exhibition. However, the very status of these oil sketches has considerably changed thanks to Luijten. What Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes wrote in his treatise on the topic no longer holds true: “They must be completed in no more than two hours. The artist must be carefully focused on light and atmospheric conditions and ready to put down a sketch and start again when those conditions change.” Artists like Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont, whose works were called “advanced sketches” when they were sold, certainly began their paintings outdoors before finishing them in the studio, as her views of the Pyrenees exhibited at the fondation in 2021-2022 suggest. When the 86 views of Italy painted by Auguste Jean-Baptiste Vinchon between 1816 and 1817 reappeared, it was fair to wonder what their commercial purpose might have been. Their slick finish ran counter to the accepted idea of completing sketches “in no more than two hours”. People like Ann Hoenigswald, former restorer and head curator of the National Gallery of Art, are conducting groundbreaking analyses of the painters’ materials, but we still have to settle for hunches. In the years to come, when these painters’ bodies of work will be studied or re-studied, it will be possible to consider this artistic phenomenon in its totality, undoubtedly breathing new life into 19th-century art history.

French or Italian artist, 17th century, Portrait of François Langlois, called Chartres, c. 1630-1635, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 68.5 cm/36.02 x 26.96 in, detail. Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection.
French or Italian artist, 17th century, Portrait of François Langlois, called Chartres, c. 1630-1635, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 68.5 cm/36.02 x 26.96 in, detail. Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection.

Over-Idealized Nature

The contribution of environmental studies to art history is also changing how the role these works played in the 19th century is seen, which could help to raise environmental awareness. Anna Lea Albright and Peter Huybers, two meteorology researchers, have recently shifted the focus to Impressionist paintings. New research like this is revolutionizing art history. Take, for example, Lisa Beaven’s article in the catalog of the Claude Lorrain show at the Château de Chantilly, where the New Zealander suggests considering his works as documenting changes in Rome’s natural environment and the banks of the Tiber. From Vélasquez’s views of the Villa Medici gardens to the earliest photographs of the Italian countryside, landscapes, especially the rich output produced in the early 19th century, could be considered an effective tool to revise our romanticized view of nature. Its hostility to artists, plaguing them with bad weather and diseases spread by stagnant water, should only increase our esteem for these precious testimonies of their impressions.

Worth Seeing
“A Passionate Eye. Twelve Years of Acquisitions by Ger Luijten”, Fondation Custodia, Paris 7.
From April 27 to July 7, 2024.
www.fondationcustodia.fr

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