Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes

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About this artist

One of the most influential figures in the history of landscape painting in France, Pierre-Henri Valenciennes received his first lessons in painting at the Académie Royale, Toulouse, from the history painter Jean-Baptiste Despax (1709-1773). In 1769 the young artist went to Rome in the company of Mathias Du Bourg, a councilor of the parliament of Toulouse, through whom he met the famous collector and patron Étienne-François, duc de Choiseul. By 1773 Valenciennes was in Paris, where he entered the studio of the history painter Gabriel-François Doyen. His interest in landscape was encouraged by the landscape painters Hubert Robert and Jean Hoül, protégés of Choiseul. Valenciennes returned to Italy in 1777 and remained there until 1784/85. During a visit to Paris in 1781, he met Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), who instructed him in applying the vanishing point to landscape and the importance of using the sky as a source of light. Vernet also encouraged him to try painting en plein air (“in the open air”), advice that Valenciennes took up when he returned to Italy and began to make studies in oil on paper. In 1800 Valenciennes published Élements de perspective pratique à l’usage des artistes, suivis de réflexions et conseils à un élève sur la peinture et particulièrement sur le genre du paysage [Elements of practical perspective for the use of artists, connected from reflections and advice to a student concerning painting and particularly of the genre of landscape], which established him as one of the most articulate and influential promoters of painting from nature. In 1787, two years after returning to Paris, Valenciennes was received by the Académie Royale. His reception piece, Cicero Uncovering the Tomb of Archimedes (Toulouse, Musée des Beaux-Arts), like his other Salon paintings, set a classical theme in an imaginary landscape meant to evoke ancient Sicily. Although informed by his studies of nature, his Salon paintings reflect the popular Neoclassical style rather than any attempt to convey a direct impression of nature. In 1812 the artist succeeded Dandrillon as professor of perspective at the École Impériale des Beaux-Arts, a position he occupied until his death. Valenciennes was responsible for the establishment in 1816 of the Prix de Rome in historical landscape.