Louis-Étienne Watelet – SOLD

Louis-Étienne Watelet
(1780 - Paris - 1866)

 The Cascades at Tivoli, 1824

Oil on paper, laid down on canvas, 43.3 x 55.8 cm
Signed and dated lower left Watelet 1824

Private collection, France.

Salon, Paris, 1824, no. 1745 (‘Étude, d’après nature, des cascatelles de Tivoli’).


For centuries, Italy has been a popular destination for travelers and artists alike. One of the reasons has always been the attraction of its vast cultural heritage. For the Grand Tourists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, exposure to the legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance was an educational experience of primary importance. Added to this is the fascination of the country’s rich natural beauty, its benign climate, multifaceted cuisine and relaxed way of life.1 From the mid seventeenth century onwards, Tivoli with its magnificent waterfalls just a few hours by horse-drawn carriage from Rome was one of Italy’s most desirable cultural landmarks. The unique beauty of the falls inspired great painters like Claude Lorrain, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Elisabeth Vigée le Brun, Jakob Philipp Hackert and Jean Baptiste Camille Corot.

Louis-Etienne Watelet painted the present view of the Cascades at Tivoli looking up towards the waterfalls as they plunged down a steep rocky cliff above the Aniene gorge. He chose to concentrate on the striking contrast between areas of deep, velvety shadow and bright sunlight, beautifully capturing the effect of mist, and highlights glistening on the surface of the cascading columns of water. In his composition he excluded all reference to architecture and omitted the Temple of the Sibyl (Temple of Vesta) and buildings usually depicted by other painters. The picturesque site was significantly altered two years after Watelet depicted it – in 1826, after a devastating flood, the Aniene River was diverted away in underground tunnels.

The French painter Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, who spent several years in Italy, played an important role in the development of French landscape painting. In his book Elémens de perspective pratique, à l’usage des artistes …’ (1799-1800), he encouraged students to sketch in oil. He advised them to spend no longer than two hours on each sketch – and only half an hour if painting at sunset or sunrise – pour saisir la nature sur le fait [to capture nature in the act]. He also encouraged artists to paint the same site at different times of day in order to observe changes in nature.2 Painters used their plein-air sketches as visual stimuli or aides-mémoire when working up large-format landscapes in the studio for later sale. There was no reason for them to sign the sketches as they were made for personal use only. However, Watelet’s Cascades at Tivoli is an interesting exception. The center of the painting is in fact an oil sketch which he made on a sheet of paper sur le motif. In his studio he then extended the sketch on all four sides, adding strips of paper by joining them together on a canvas. This allowed him to preserve the spontaneity of his immediate response to the atmosphere captured before the motif and to combine it with the more time-consuming finishing details of a traditional studio painting. He signed and dated the finished painting before exhibiting it at the Salon in Paris in 1824.3

Louis-Etienne Watelet was born in Paris in 1780. Little is known about his early training. He appears to have been largely self-taught, at least in the basics of his craft. He honed his skills by comparing himself to masters of historical landscape such as Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, whose studio he is said to have frequented. His talents as a landscapist shone and the painter Paul Huet (1803-69) considered them superior to those of his rivals, Jean-Joseph Xavier Bidauld and Jean-Victor Bertin. Watelet traveled to Italy in 1822, either on the advice of Valenciennes or inspired by his writings. His sojourn in Italy brought about a change in his stylistic approach. He renounced traditional historical landscape painting and began to produce landscapes that reflected a realistic portrayal of natural beauty. He achieved early success and from 1800 to 1857 exhibited annually at the Salon. He received numerous prizes and was appointed as Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1825. Successful painters such as Paul Delaroche and Theodore Caruelle d’Aligny were among his students. He died in Paris in 1866.4

1 The intellectual challenge of discovering the genius loci of art and antiquity held Grand Tourists in thrall, and Rome was a magnet for eighteenth-century aesthetes. An altogether different attraction was the hedonistic lifestyle of Naples with its promise of endless culinary pleasures and easy living amid striking natural scenery and a benign climate. For the Protestant northerner, Naples was a tempting and at the same time intimidating experience. Like the humanists of the Italian Renaissance, the influential scholar and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) reflected on the concept of a dichotomy between the two opposing sides of man’s nature – on the one side the apollonian (standing for reason, order and intelligence) and on the other, the dionysian (representing abandonment, irrationality and passion).

2 Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Elemens de perspective pratique, à l’usage des artistes, Suivis De Réflexions et Conseils à un Elève sur la Peinture, et particulièrement sur le genre du Paysage, Paris (1799-1800).

3 Explication des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, gravure, lithographie et architecture des artistes vivans, exposés au Musée Royal des Arts, exhib. cat. Salon, Paris, 1824, p. 186, no. 1745.

4 Thieme/Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler, XXXV, Leipzig 1916, pp. 179-80.

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