Although Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes was trained by the leading history painter Gabriel-François Doyen (1726–1806), he showed an early attraction to the landscape genre and is best known as a pioneer of the open-air landscape sketch. In the late 18th century, when Valenciennes was beginning his artistic career, sketches were generally considered preparatory studies for paintings rather than independent works. Valenciennes’s treatise on plein-air landscape painting, Elémens de perspective pratique à l’usage des artistes (1799–1800), profoundly influenced the artists of the Barbizon school in France and helped legitimize their tendency toward naturalistic landscape, devoid of mythological or historical content. However, Valenciennes himself was committed to the classical ideal and supported the aspirations of a generation of neoclassical artists to elevate the prestige of painted landscapes through allusions to historical and literary subject matter. Particularly notable among Valenciennes’s sketches are his cloud studies, including many executed in oil on paper, as here. While some of the cloud studies verge toward pure abstraction, the mountain seen in the lower right corner keeps this one grounded in a more traditional landscape idiom.
Resource: The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, Sue Taylor and Richard Born, eds. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990, 72–73.