The Augustan bridge on the Nera river, near the town of Narni, Italy


The Augustan bridge on the Nera river, near the town of Narni, Italy

1758 France

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This magnificent view depicts the Nera river valley in the region of Terni, a popular destination for landscape painters in the eighteenth century and home to the ancient Cascate delle Marmore and Augustan bridge. Originally built in 27 B.C., the ruined bridge carried the Via Flaminia across the river Nera. The road joined Rome to the north and as such was the route taken by many artists travelling south to the capital. This fact alone might explain its popularity among painters. However, the region may also have held a particular appeal for plein-air painters in that it exemplified a harmonious relationship between man and nature, with the bridge an impressive addition to the hilly terrain.

Dated 1790, the Colnaghi view was completed during the final year of Bidauld's first Italian sojourn (1785-90). It was at this time that he was developing his own distinctive style, working up in his studio plein-air studies and sketches made directly from nature into finished landscapes, which sometimes included small figures added by artists such as Guillaume Lethière, François Gerard, Louis-Léopold Boilly and Horace Vernet. Our picture exemplifies the culmination of five years of on-site oil sketching, in accordance with the theories expounded by Valenciennes in Eléments de perspective (see below). The picture's beautifully rendered light, crystalline articulation of the foliage and formal composition attest to its status as a finished exhibition piece and the status of the artist as a Neoclassical landscape painter par excellence. The present work is a rare example of a major finished work painted by Bidauld in his first Italian period (for another, see View of the Isola di Sora, dated 1789, sold at Sotheby's, New York, 28 January 2000, lot 113).

Although a number of sketches of the countryside around Narni from this period exist, none is known that corresponds to our work. Views of Narni (presumably finished landscapes) are listed in the Salon livrets for the years 1795 and 1843, and the catalogue of Bidauld’s 1847 estate sale also includes three paintings of Narni, including this work (lot 12). The location of the Colnaghi picture was unknown until its recent rediscovery in a French collection. A clue to its whereabouts in the interim period may, however, be found on a label on the reverse (possibly from the time of the Galerie Charpentier exhibition of 1947) on which the name Comte de Leude (?) is written.

John-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld formally trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, following an apprenticeship with his elder brother, Jean-Pierre-Xavier Bidauld (1745-1813), a landscape and still-life painter. After completing his education Bidauld headed north in 1783 to Paris, where he met Claude-Joseph Vernet and painted landscapes en plein air in the nearby forest of Fontainebleau under the latter’s encouragement. In the capital Bidauld also met the art dealer and perfumer Dulac, who funded the artist's first trip to Italy in 1785. He travelled around Italy for the next five years, visiting Tuscany, Umbria and Campania, making spontaneous landscape studies in oil on paper and producing larger completed pictures such as the present work. Bidauld was closely involved with other French painters in Rome, which by then had become a major center for the movement of Neo-classicism.

In 1790 Bidauld was once again in Paris, where he exhibited finished historical landscapes after his Italian oil sketches at the Salon (1791 to 1844). The genre of historical landscapes had been recently introduced to the Academy in 1787 by Pierre-Henri Valenciennes in his Cicero uncovering the Tomb of Archimedes (Musée des Augustins, Toulouse) and The Ancient City of Agrigentum (Musée du Louvre, Paris), and Bidauld quickly established himself as one of the best exponents of the genre. In the early nineteenth century Bidauld received prestigious commissions for the leading figures of Europe, including Charles IV of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte and Louis-Philippe; and in 1823 he became the first artist admitted to the Académie des Beaux-Arts for landscape painting. However, with the growing interest of realism in the genre ushered in by Théodore Rousseau, Bidauld, who stubbornly defended the then outmoded tenets of Neo-classicism, eventually fell out of favour. His vision of the Italian landscape was later revived by the century's most successful plein-air painter, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Interestingly Corot also painted a view of the Augustan Bridge similar to our picture, albeit from a viewpoint set further back (1826; Musée du Louvre, Paris).

Plein-air landscapists, such as Bidauld and Corot, quickly sketched their impressions on paper in an attempt to capture an actual scene from nature, complete with aerial perspective, changing light effects and various climactic conditions. Italy's temperate climate, long summers and Mediterranean lighting provided an ideal stage for painters working out-of-doors. The tradition of sketching and painting en plein air grew from the innovations of Northern landscape painters working in Rome in the seventeenth century, such as Poussin and Claude Lorrain, both of whom were attracted to the campagna for its historical connections to Antiquity. However, these early artists represented the landscape ‘in a natural manner’ (‘in disegnar vedute al naturale’), as opposed to working directly ‘from nature’ (‘dal naturale’). It was not until the following century, when Vernet was painting his expressive marinescapes outside of Rome that plein-air painting was finally underway. Sir Joshua Reynolds praised Vernet's novel approach in his advice to landscape painters: ‘I would recommend, above all things, to paint from nature instead of drawing; to carry your palette and pencils to the Waterside. This was the practice of Vernet, whom I knew at Rome. He there showed me his studies in colours, which struck me very much for the truth which those works only which are produced while the impression is warm from Nature.’ (J. Northcote, The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, London, 1819, 2, pp. 90-91). In Paris in the early 1780s Vernet, in turn, encouraged Bidauld and Valenciennes to continue sketching from nature in oil on paper, a technique later codified by Valenciennes in his treatise of 1800, Eléments de perspective pratique. For Valenciennes, who formally established the tradition of plein-air painting at the turn of the century, spontaneous oil studies formed only one stage of the landscape painter's education, which had as its ultimate objective the finished exhibition picture
The artist; his estate sale, Bonnefans de Lavialle, Paris, 25-26 March 1847, lot 12 (‘Vue des restes du pont d’Auguste sur la Ners, près de Narni’); Private collection, France.

Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Paysages d’Italie, 1947, no. 6 (label on the reverse).
Exhibition catalogue, Jean Joseph Xavier Bidauld (1756-1846) Peintures et Dessins, Musée Duplessis, Carpentras, 1978, under no. 7 (catalogue by S. Gutwirth).
Height 100.50 cm (39.57 inches)
Width 138.10 cm (54.37 inches)
Oil on canvas
Signed, inscribed and dated lower left: Bidauld / Roma / 1790
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