Bidauld was one of the handful of self-taught artists who, late in the 18th century, brought new life to the landscape through innovative plein-air experimentation. This son of a humble Carpentras goldsmith learned his craft early in the course of a roaming existence. Lyon, where he joined his brother – a painter of landscapes and still lifes – at the age of ten, was his artistic cradle; but the year he spent in Geneva as a teenager and the circles he was able to move in while there were more decisive than the odd jobs he had been doing with his brother: awed by the sublimity of mountain scenery, initiated into the study of nature by a local artist and enlightened by the Flemish and Dutch masterpieces available for scrutiny in the homes of wealthy Genevan connoisseurs, he realised that landscape was his vocation. After a spell in the South of France he moved to Paris in 1783; there he was counselled by Vernet and copied genre paintings for the perfumer and art dealer Dulac, whose generosity allowed him to set up house in Rome in 1785 and remain there for five years.

The method he developed in Italy was markedly different from that of the slightly older Valenciennes: no quick, fragmentary, on-the-spot sketches of nature, but rather painstaking reproduction from life with an emphasis on the picturesque. Thus he learned, as he put it, “to make studies by making pictures, and to make pictures by making studies.”1 His plein-air approach was by no means new, but he probably took it further than anyone else at the time by habitually “painting his pictures entirely in situ . . . spending months at a time before a view with a canvas measuring three or four feet, working all day regardless of physical inconvenience and fickle temperatures, and not budging until he had finished his picture.”2 This tenacity prefigured the Barbizon painters’ relationship with nature. The success of his views of Italy and his Italianate historical landscapes tends to overshadow the fact that he continued to work this way once back in France in 1790, painting Brittany, the Dauphiné, the forest of Fontainebleau, Ermenonville and Montmorency. Fame came under the Directory and fortune under the Empire, via commissions from the Bonaparte family. The Restoration ensured him the same privileges, in addition to making him an academician – he was the first landscape artist to be admitted to the Institut de France – and an Officer of the Legion of Honour.

Our landscape confirms Bidauld’s predilection for the alpine settings that had earlier triggered his vocation. In the foreground washerwomen are busy with sheets of fabric, while on the stretch of ground on the other side of the stream peasants are walking along a road and loading hay onto an ox-cart. Further away, the roofs of a village and the spire of its church emerge from the hollow of a wooded valley against a mountain backdrop lightly veiled with heat haze. The work’s size – it is larger than the studies painted in Italy – together with its wealth of picturesque detail and numerous figures, date it to the artist’s mature period. The view is reminiscent of places to be seen near Grenoble, a city Bidauld painted at least once, around 1808 (Grenoble Museum). Here he conveys marvellously well the spatial breadth of his subject within a limited format. (M.K., trad. J.T.)

 

 

1. Désiré Raoul-Rochette, «Notice historique sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Bidauld», in Institut National de France, Académie des Beaux-Arts: Séance publique annuelle du 6 octobre 1849 (Paris: 1849), pp. 33–47 (p. 40). The only literature we have on Bidauld is the brief, not altogether recent work by Suzanne Gurtwirth, Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld (1758-1846). Peintures et dessins, exh. cat., Carpentras/Angers/Cherbourg, 1978.
2. Ibid., pp. 40–44.

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