In 2007 the Getty Museum acquired a landscape by artist Théodore Rousseau that experts found hard to categorize—it was more ambitious than a sketch, but far from a conventionally finished painting. Thinking about this one picture launched curator Scott Allan on a journey into Rousseau’s art that would last many years and take him to dozens of museums and collections around the world. In this audio of a talk offered at the Getty on June 23—titled “Théodore Rousseau: ‘The Sun of a Small Creation’”—Scott offers a behind-the-scenes view into the making of the exhibition that resulted from this effort, Unruly Nature: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau. He reveals the critical as well as practical ins and outs of creating an object list, securing loans, and formulating an installation plan.

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Unruly Nature: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau exhibition information

Unruly Nature exhibition catalogue

Théodore Rousseau (1812–1867) artist’s biography


I think we can begin. First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is Scott Allan, associate curator of paintings at the Getty and curator of the Théodore Rousseau exhibition which just opened earlier this week. I hope some of you have had a chance to see it, and it you haven’t I would certainly encourage you to do so.

So I’m just going to leap right in. I want to begin with a statement attributed to Théodore Rousseau by his longtime friend and biographer Alfred Sensier, which will explain the title of this talk:

“Silence is golden. When I was at my observation post at Belle-Croix [in the Forest of Fontainebleau], I dared not move, for the silence opened up for me a course of discoveries. The families of the forest then began to stir; it was silence that allowed me, immobile as a tree trunk, to watch the stag cleaning himself in his lair or to observe the habits of the field mouse…He who lives in silence becomes the center of the world … I could imagine myself the sun of a small creation.”

This evocative passage conveys the artist’s deeply contemplative attitude, reverential in its silence. His contact with nature, separate from human civilization and human concerns, is immersive, and it promotes humility and a sort of self-effacement. The artist stills himself, becomes effectively invisible, and nature comes alive. At the same time, however, the centrality of the human subject is affirmed. The artist, sensitive and watchful, finds himself the privileged center of a world, as surrounding nature reveals itself to him.

Rousseau’s landscape paintings likewise affirm the privileged position of the viewing subject. Take this picture in the exhibition, from the Toledo Museum of Art. The rustic motif is humble, but it is painted with tremendous precision, patience, and care, giving one the sense of an artist who was as deeply absorbed in the act of painting as he was in the contemplation of nature. Despite the intensely vivid naturalism of his depiction, it is highly mediated. Notice how artful the composition is. The picture is darker at the peripheries and more luminous in the center, and it further focuses our attention through the arching screen of trees in the middle-ground. This all gives the composition a kind of ocular structure, giving us the sense that we are seeing through some voracious eye, that we are seeing the artist’s subjective vision of nature – a nature that has already been internalized, processed, and creatively organized by him. It is a vision that that the painting encourages us to appropriate as our own. Through its strongly centralized composition, the painting positions us in a specific way: not as the mobile, casual, day-tripping spectator implied by many Impressionist landscapes, who takes in the pretty natural scenery with a rapid glance and in the fleeting moment, but rather as an immobile spectator, well off the beaten path, who is intently, penetratingly fixed on nature, for long stretches of time. Like Rousseau at his observation post.

The vision that Rousseau offers, quiet and solitary and intensely felt, is of course a highly Romantic one, and it is one that really captivated me as an undergraduate back in the mid-1990s when I first encountered his work, and specifically the Toledo picture, which is probably the one most frequently reproduced in art history survey textbooks. And so, when the opportunity to work on the artist presented itself to me here at the Getty, I couldn’t resist.

Instead of regurgitating what I’ve already written in the catalogue and gallery texts, what I’d like to do in this talk is give you a behind-the-scenes look into the development of the present Rousseau exhibition, a project that has been in the works for many years now. Hopefully in the process I’ll disabuse you of the notion that curators just lounge around all day on marble balconies talking about art while sipping champagne and eating profiteroles. That’s just the afternoons.

This exhibition, like many at the Getty, had its starting point in a work in the permanent collection. At the time of its acquisition in 2007, this painting, which represents one of Rousseau’s favorite sites in the forest of Fontainebleau, prompted excited conversations among the curators and conservators. Mainly we marveled at its remarkably sketch-like technique, at how much energy and confidence there was in its thin, fluid, multidirectional brushwork. But what was maybe even more striking was how different it was from the pictures that first come to mind when one thinks of Rousseau at the height of his maturity in the 1840s and early 1850s – pictures like the Toledo picture.

That work is a small-scale painting, about half the size of the Getty picture; it is much more intensely colored; and it suggests a much slower, more painstaking elaboration of the picture surface, which is characterized by a dense build-up of small, textured dabs and touches. Compared to such a preciously painted cabinet picture, which was done for one of Rousseau’s early patrons and which is unquestionably a finished work, what was the status of the Getty painting?

The answer turned out to be not so straightforward. For instance, even though Rousseau’s brushwork suggests the spontaneity and improvisation of a sketch, the painting was actually preceded by a small, preparatory oil sketch on paper (on the left). Furthermore, Rousseau introduced important changes as he developed the larger picture. The tall, blasted trunk to the right of the principal oak, for example, was a notable addition, which he made perhaps to balance the composition or to introduce a dramatic contrast that spoke to the life cycle of nature. Maybe he was even thinking of academic precedents, like this historical landscape painted by his former teacher Rémond, which closely anticipates this element of Rousseau’s composition. Whatever the case, the point is that the Getty picture an artful composition, elaborated in the studio like a proper tableau. Rousseau even added picturesque human and animal staffage (a herdsman leading cattle to a watering hole), and, crucially, he signed the work, indicating that he may have considered it sufficiently resolved.

This does not change the fact, however, that the Getty painting was a private work that did not show nearly the same level of finish that most collectors desired, or that decorum demanded of public exhibition pieces, like this painting in LACMA’s collection that Rousseau exhibited at the 1849 Paris Salon. Indeed, Rousseau retained the Getty picture in his studio almost until the end of his life in 1867. It was among more than 100 works in his studio inventory that some enterprising dealers bought from him in 1867 and exhibited the same year at the Cercle des Arts, an exclusive collectors’ club.

In the catalogue accompanying this exhibition, the painting was described as an ébauche, which is to say a picture still in its early stages of elaboration. A work described this way would certainly not have been considered finished by the average Salon-goer or collector, but nonetheless, it was a work that Rousseau felt comfortable signing and that dealers were willing to make a speculative investment in, sensing its market potential. Indeed, already during Rousseau’s lifetime, an “insider” audience of artists, dealers, critics, and connoisseurs (very much the audience at the Cercle des Arts in 1867), were beginning to prize his more sketch-like works over his more carefully painted pictures, because they supposedly conveyed his personal sensations of nature with more immediacy and power. One even reads stories of friends and fellow artists intervening to prevent Rousseau from ruining perfect ébauches by obsessively belaboring them.

So the difficulty in categorizing a work like the Getty painting resides partly in the fact that the paradigms of artistic value were shifting during the artist’s lifetime. It is an ambiguous work very much caught up in the sketch-versus-finish conflict that bedeviled 19th-century French art more generally. You might say that it is a sketch-like work that aspires to the status of the tableau, or that it is a tableau that actively incorporates the energy and power of a sketch.

In order to properly address the issues the Getty painting raised, I needed to figure out how representative of Rousseau’s work it was. And so I searched for relevant comparative material, as you do with any new acquisition. I began very basically, by identifying other works of the same size, and this ended up being a fascinating way to go. Like most of the painters of his generation, Rousseau availed himself of the standard-sized canvases that were commercially available in the shops of artists’ suppliers. In this case, we’re dealing with a size-50 canvas in the “figure” format, as distinguished from the “paysage” or “marine” formats, which had different height-to-width ratios. A quick survey of Rousseau’s oeuvre and I found out that this was one of his favorite large formats, so there was nothing anomalous there. But the range of these size-50 pictures seemed quite extraordinary. Here’s a sampling:

This is a vigorous charcoal drawing on canvas, that might be understood either as the under-drawing for a projected painting or as an independent drawing on canvas; it’s difficult to say.

This work is an ébauche like the Getty painting, but it is obviously much less developed. You can see how Rousseau used a thin, dark paint to establish the compositional design and block in the main tonal masses before proceeding with any colors. Unlike the Getty painting, this work is unsigned.

Here we have the cover image for the exhibition catalogue, an important painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Like the Getty painting, this work represents oak trees in the forest of Fontainebleau, and also like the Getty painting, it was categorized as an ébauche at the end of the artist’s life. But instead of deriving from a loosely-brushed oil sketch, it derived from an intricate pen-and-ink drawing, a real tour de force (on the right). Correspondingly, the painting is rather more “graphic” in its effect than the Getty painting. First, Rousseau carefully delineated the composition in dilute brownish paint, possibly over a drawing done in some kind of dry medium. Then he applied thin washes of green and brown for the ground and the masses of foliage. Finally, he used a very dark, lean paint resembling ink to accentuate the contours of the tree trunks and branches. He has also scratched paint away (much as one would in a watercolor drawing), helping to create a sense of airy volume in the tree crowns.

In this so-called ébauche, instead of using browns or greens for his preliminary paint layers, Rousseau daringly applied a pink underlayer as the foundation for his extraordinary sunset effect. The apposition of emerald green — a modern chemical pigment — on this pink layer reveals a wholly different chromatic sensibility from that of the Getty or Houston paintings, which are dominated by traditional earth tones.

Finally, Rousseau also used size-50 formats for important public exhibition pieces, and the differences among these are also quite impressive. On the left is Rousseau’s submission to 1861 Salon: an extremely dark, densely painted forest interior scene. On the right is his 1867 Salon painting. This picture of Mont Blanc presents a loftily detached rather than earthbound viewpoint. It offers an extremely deep vista, rather than plunging us into the organic matter of nature, and its palette, particularly in the blue of the sky, is as brilliant as the forest scene’s is obscure.

These are just a few examples (most of which you’ll be able to see in the Getty exhibition) but they suffice to illustrate that Rousseau was rather unsystematic in his working procedures; that he brought into play diverse graphic and painterly techniques; and that his palette, as well as his subject matter, ranged widely.

Now, initially the idea had been floated of doing a small focus exhibition of large, sketch-like landscapes around the Getty painting, but given the sheer technical and stylistic variety I encountered when I began surveying Rousseau’s work, it seemed that he deserved a more probing, in-depth treatment, and particularly one that would account for both his painting and drawing practices, because they were clearly part of a productive continuum for the artist, as works like the one in Houston attest. So I approached the Drawings department about a possible collaboration and I was fortunately able to enlist one of the curators, Édouard Kopp, as a partner in the project.

So much for beginnings. The next step was to determine what would be included in the show. This is not immediately self-evident when you’ve got well over 600 paintings and 700 drawings in Rousseau’s catalogued oeuvre to choose from. We had to establish some basic parameters and critical ground-rules.

As a first step, it was important to get a handle on the exhibition history, because you want to avoid doing what’s already been done before. Fortunately for us, there have been very few monographic shows on Rousseau in recent memory; indeed, redressing that neglect was one of our main motivations.

In North America, for instance, there have only been three shows. The first, in 1991, was a small, dealer-organized show of drawings in New York. The second, in 2002 and also in New York, was a small, dealer-organized show of paintings, comprising mostly commercial stock along with a few loans from museums. This was then followed in 2014 by a show at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York (here is the title page of the catalogue). Although this was the first monographic exhibition devoted to Rousseau in a North American museum, it was somewhat limited in scope, since it focused entirely on small oil sketches and drawings from New York-area collections.

Given how New York-centric all these exhibitions were, we felt it was imperative that we cast the net wider and emphasize the rich holdings of Rousseau’s work across the country. Here I’m showing you a few of the Rousseaus from Californian collections that are featured, and these are joined by Rousseaus from Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, Washington, DC, Massachusetts, and, yes, New York.

With regard to Europe, we wanted to represent major French collections to the best of our ability, but we also knew early on that certain key loans, from the Louvre in particular, would be impossible, and while this was unfortunate, we were not too concerned, since the French collections had been given their due in a big retrospective at the Louvre in 1967, which marked the centenary of Rousseau’s death. So we decided to concentrate on some of the less frequented collections outside of France, particularly the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, which actually ended up partnering with the Getty on the project, and The Mesdag Collection in The Hague. Both museums have some of Rousseau’s most interesting work from the point of view of process and technique, and both have been very generous with loans (here are a couple of works from The Mesdag Collection: an intimate, mixed-media grisaille on the left, and a large oil painting that Rousseau left unfinished, on the right).

At the same time, certain strategic and practical considerations meant that we decided to rule out entire countries: the UK for instance. We made this decision partly because English and Scottish collections of Rousseau’s work had already been the subject of an important monographic show in Norwich and London in 1982, and partly because the two works I would have wanted most for our checklist (these two) are part of museum bequests whose terms stipulate that they cannot ever travel.

Having established some geographic parameters, we wanted to build a list of works, or “checklist” in curator-speak, that would meet three basic criteria. First, we wanted the checklist to strike a balance between works from major museums and works from private collections that the public never gets to see (the work on the left, for example, has not been in an exhibition since 1878, and the work on the right has never been exhibited). Second, we wanted to represent the whole chronological trajectory of Rousseau’s career, from the 1830s through the 1860s. And third, we wanted to represent the full range of his production.

The most important consequence of these last two points was that we would not unduly privilege the open-air oil sketches from Rousseau’s early years (I am showing you two excellent examples here). These were the works that played a central role in the Modernist recuperation of the artist’s reputation in the 1950s and 60s, and that have often been privileged in exhibitions, like the one at the Morgan. These were the works that, in their apparent freshness and immediacy, could be easily understood in the light of subsequent developments, namely Impressionism. To me it was crucial that we avoid recapitulating a tired narrative, about the triumph of plein-air painting, that validates the Barbizon School only insofar as it played a role in the prehistory of Impressionism. As the art historian Nicholas Green once said, you can appreciate Rousseau as a proto-Impressionist, but only at the expense of two-thirds of his work.

So we were going to put these wonderful sketches back in their place, in the context of Rousseau’s entire production, where the studio still played the dominant role. The idea was to create a checklist that would allow visitors to come away from the exhibition with a good grasp of the distinctions between private and public work for Rousseau, and with an understanding of the traditional categories that described a hierarchy of production for the artist and his contemporaries, from the “etude” and “esquisse”(the study and the sketch) to the full-fledged “tableau”(or studio composition). Similarly, we wanted to arrange things in such a way that visitors would come away with a vivid sense of Rousseau’s working procedures as he built up his pictures, and with a heightened sensitivity to questions of finish, which was such a contested issue in the artist’s day. Finally, we were insistent upon giving drawing and painting their rightful due, not only because Rousseau was equal parts painter and draftsman – something that cannot be said of the Impressionists – but also because this was going to be a co-production between the Drawings and Paintings Departments.

So much for our general criteria. On a more mundane, practical level, we had to determine which works we could realistically access. So we went through the catalogue raisonné and made an inventory of paintings and drawings in select museum collections, and we started identifying important private collections by reaching out to curatorial colleagues, dealers, and auction house experts. Pretty quickly we had the beginnings of a checklist, but we couldn’t responsibly make any final determination about the objects until we saw them in person, knowing you cannot trust reproductions, print or digital.

A slide to illustrate this point. These are three images of an important Salon painting in the collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. The image in the upper left is my scan of the atrocious color plate in the catalogue raisonné. The image in the middle came from a traditional photographic transparency, which was used for the color plate in one of the Norton Simon’s recent collection catalogues. And the image in the lower right is a more recent digital photograph which was initially supplied to us for our exhibition catalogue. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at three distinct works.

So, to repeat: you need to see these things firsthand. And that means travel, a lot of travel – in my case, to these 27 cities, over about a three-year period.

In each place, you’re gauging the condition, quality, and interest of a work, and you’re also pitching the show to your curatorial colleagues and laying the the diplomatic groundwork for an eventual loan request. Very often, I immediately ruled a work out when I saw it. Look at my notes for this drawing at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen: “sheet is warped…considerable foxing…some stains…pretty rough shape…not for checklist.” In other cases, works that were not necessarily a top priority beforehand really leapt out when I finally saw them in person: for instance, this panel painting at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore: “[two stars] sky is a knockout…looks…pristine….” It ended up being one of my favorite pictures in the show, which is why you’ll see it reproduced on the catalogue’s title-page spread.

In addition to making these kinds of visual assessments, I would sift through the museum’s object files, paying particular attention to conservation reports and also loan recommendation memos, to get a sense of which works museums have been willing to lend in the past and which works they refuse to lend for conservation reasons. One thing that made me anxious was the fact that Rousseau painted many important works on wooden panel, much like the 17th-century Dutch artists he so admired. Because panels are susceptible to temperature and humidity fluctuations and often have permanent structural flaws (like old cracks and splits), museums can be very fussy about lending them. In the case of the Walters, I was lucky to be able to borrow their panel, since it had been deemed structurally sound, but I was not always so fortunate. It was heartbreaking not to be able to borrow this large panel painting from the Met, which is among the best Rousseaus in the country, but in this case the conservator’s will was law.

As I was going through museum files, I was also gathering valuable research materials that would inform the exhibition catalogue. Because the show really originated in conversations with conservators, I was keen to write an essay on Rousseau’s working procedures as a painter. So, as I traveled, I made sure to compile as much valuable information as I could about Rousseau’s choice of supports, grounds, and pigments, the constitution of his medium, his use of varnish, and so on.

Mostly this information corroborated what I was also learning from a handful of published studies, but there were still some fun discoveries along the way. One breakthrough, for instance, came about when our Danish partners undertook the technical examination of all the Rousseaus in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in preparation for the show. On the back of one canvas, they took note of an artists’ supplier stamp. Such stamps are useful, because they tell us where an artist obtained his materials, and they can help us date his work, since artists’ suppliers, like other Parisian businesses, were listed annually in a commercial directory, much like the Yellow Pages. By studying those directories, you can find out when certain suppliers were in business, and at what address.

Fortunately I didn’t need to go through these directories myself, since some heroic French scholars have recently done this and compiled the relevant information. So I was able to discover quickly through their work that the supplier in question, a man by the name of Jerome Ottoz, is only listed from 1862 on, indicating that the picture would likely have been painted sometime between 1862 and Rousseau’s death in 1867. This is interesting because the painting has often been dated to 1849, on the basis of the catalogue entry for the picture in the estate sale held just after Rousseau’s death, which one might assume was a pretty reliable source of information. In the 1990s, a few scholars suggested that the picture may have been painted sometime in early 1860s, since it seemed to be related stylistically to this work from Chrysler Museum – the hypothesis being that they were part of a series on the four seasons that Rousseau was contemplating at this time. The supplier stamp effectively confirmed the 1860s dating, and it is why you’ll see the two pictures hanging together in the show.

This conveniently brings me to the installation plan of the exhibition, which is what I’d like to focus on for the remainder of my talk. The installation plan wasn’t something that was simply developed after the checklist was finalized; rather, the two developed in tandem and strongly informed each other.

Needless to say, there are set physical parameters you have to account for: the size of your galleries dictates how much work you can include. Early on, I had the designer do some mock elevations for me on the computer, and it became apparent that I had to drop several things because there wasn’t space. We were able to introduce several free-standing walls, however, which had the double benefit of allowing us to maximize the amount of work we could include and to create strong sight-lines at various entry points.

The basic flow of the show, we decided, would be chronological, so that visitors, most of whom will be unfamiliar with Rousseau’s art, can get a sense of the radical transformations his art underwent over of the course of the 1830s, 40s, 50s, and 60s —from the view of Mont Blanc on the left, to the one on the right. At the same time, we weren’t interested in plotting a single, overarching narrative through the galleries. Rousseau’s work is too varied, experimental, and open-ended for that. The idea instead was to play up the artist’s diversity and multiplicity, but to do so in an organized fashion, so that visitors can make some sense out of the variety.

The real unit of curatorial argument, therefore, is the individual wall, where we have presented small groupings of work to illuminate various aspects of Rousseau’s practice.

For example, to highlight his preparatory procedures, there will be pairings of directly related works. Such as this black chalk study on paper made during Rousseau’s trip to the Berry region in central France in 1842, and the painting that ultimately derived from it over the course of the next year.

Or like these two works. On the right we have a mixed-media grisaille that represents the culmination of a sequence of preparatory drawings dating back to Rousseau’s 1844 trip to Les Landes, a region in southwestern France. This extraordinary work eventually served as the basis, in the 1850s, for an obsessively painted color version, on the left, which is identical in dimensions, and which Rousseau exhibited in the 1859 Salon and then retained in his studio for further alterations. This pairing is one of the show’s major highlights, since the pictures haven’t been seen together in well over a century; indeed, the colored version had languished in obscurity until its rediscovery, in some hotel in Portugal, about 10 years ago.

Completing the wall that these two pictures are on is a third picture of identical dimensions, which like the Clark picture featured at the 1859 Salon but whose palette is much more subdued, and much more about value contrast than intensity of tone, making for a comparison that speaks to Rousseau’s versatility as a colorist.

In addition to such groupings, the installation offers sequences of work designed to dramatize Rousseau’s complex, layered approach to painting. On one wall, for example, we have these three works, all from the 1850s, and all sharing the same format:

First is a highly detailed compositional drawing for a painting, which underscores how foundational draftsmanship was to Rousseau’s practice.

Then there is an extraordinary work which Rousseau left in an ébauche-like state. In this instance, he started with a detailed graphite under-drawing — which you can really see in this infrared reflectograph — and then he began applying his colors in a few thin, dilute layers, in a way that accentuates more than it obscures the initial design. And really, given how minimally developed it is as a painting, we might do better to describe it as a sort of “painted drawing.” And then, finally, we have a fully elaborated painting from around the same time, which Rousseau exhibited at the 1859 Salon, and which met the standards of finish for a public exhibition piece.

A similar sort of visual narrative will unfold in this sequence, showcasing three of the size-50 pictures that I showed you earlier.

Besides groupings that will illuminate Rousseau’s preparatory procedures and the ways in which progressively built-up a tableau, there are others that will draw attention to studio practices of repetition and variation. Particularly in second half of career when there was growing market for his work, he developed certain compositional formulas and stock motifs that he used repeatedly, while varying his palette and facture in the pursuit of different effects of season, weather, and time of day. The picture on the left from the Taft Museum is not necessarily the best Rousseau in that wonderful collection, but since it has the same composition as this surreal picture from the Cincinnati Art Museum, we just had to include it — not just to make an important point about pictorial convention and artifice, but also to bring into dialogue two Cincinnati pictures that, to my knowledge, have never been shown together.

There is a lot more to be said about the installation plan, but I want to leave you to discover it in the galleries for yourselves. I also expect that my time here tonight, and probably your patience, is just about up. I don’t have any grand conclusion, but I hope you now have a more concrete sense of what’s involved in developing a big loan show like this. Over many years, hundreds of decisions have to be made, decisions that are affected by a complicated mixture of historical, critical, aesthetic, strategic, and practical considerations. With a lot of luck and ideally not too much compromise, the end result is, hopefully, something worth seeing.

I think we can begin. First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is Scott Allan, associate curator of paintings at the Getty and curator of the Théodore Rousseau exhibition which just opened earlier this week. I hope some of you have had a chance to see it, and it you haven’t I would certa...