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Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld

* 1758 – † 1846

Paysage rocheux (Rocky Landscape), late 1780s

Oil on wood

Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld, a native of Provence, belongs to France’s early generation of neo-classical landscape painters alongside artists such as Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Jean-Victor Bertin and Nicolas-Didier Boguet.1 Aged just ten, Bidauld went to Lyon to become a pupil of his older brother, the still-life and landscape painter Jean-Pierre-Xavier Bidauld,2 and supplemented those private lessons with courses at the Lyon academy. The autodidactic work that the younger Bidauld did subsequently in Provence earned him enough money to finance a course of study in Paris.3 There, however, he chose not to enroll at the academy but instead studied the seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish masters to which the art dealer Dulac granted him access. He also worked en plein air in Fontainebleau and was taken on as a pupil4 in the studio of Claude-Joseph Vernet.5 But it was Dulac’s generous patronage that Bidauld had to thank for the five-year trip to Italy he embarked on in 1785. Having installed himself in Rome, he travelled extensively,6 including to a town situated some fifty kilometers north of the Eternal City: Civita Castellana. Perched on a high plateau, Civita Castellana is surrounded by precipitous red tuff ravines with mountain streams coursing through them.7 Like many other artists, Bidauld was enchanted by this magical place, which according to Stéphane Rouvet is what he captured in this oil study painted towards the end of his sojourn in Italy.

The view selected, which manages almost entirely without any sky at all, allowed the painter to concentrate wholly on his depiction of the now jutting, now cavernous, rock formations. Armed with a subtle palette, he captured not only the play of light and shade on the rocks but also the fine details of the bushy vegetation. Contemporaries told of the painter’s extraordinary stamina and readiness to defy the heat and spend whole days in the same spot until the painting he was working on was finished.8 The assiduous attention to detail lavished on these consummately done studies is evident in another work, too, Gorge at Cività Castellana.9 Likewise dated to the late 1780s, it shows how this form of plein air painting was not necessarily confined to small formats. Such oil studies, which dispense with anything purely anecdotal in character and focus solely on nature, served the artist as valuable aides-memoires and as preparatory sketches for paintings executed in the studio that might be presented to the public at the Salon. As our example shows, they were painted in situ with the utmost care. The artist kept most of them himself and hung them in his studio where they also served as reference works for his pupils. While the neo-classical nature study was very much a private affair, the nineteenth century saw it pursued with great passion as the generations that followed turned it into a genre in its own right.10

Bidauld returned to Paris in 1790 and was soon having his historicist landscapes exhibited at the Salon. His standing as an artist was cemented further by commissions from King Charles IV of Spain as well as Joseph Bonaparte and Princess Caroline Murat.11 In 1823 Bidauld became the first landscape painter to be appointed a fellow of the Paris academy and two years later he was made a Chevalier de Legion d’honneur, both of which honours attest to the high esteem in which he was held as a landscapist.12

As much as the example of this oil study of the late 1780s might lead us to believe that Bidauld’s principal contribution to the landscape genre lay in his realistic mode of painting, for him as a painter there could be no avoiding the through-composed historicist landscape then in demand. Much to the chagrin of Théodore Rousseau and others, moreover, he used his status and role as a Salon juror to oppose the new school of landscape painting – the Barbizon School – then emerging. He could not halt its ascendancy, however, especially since his own generation, with its penchant for what were then progressive nature studies, had helped sow the seeds of this same evolving style of plein air painting.

Asked about the importance of Bidauld’s nature studies to the generations that came after him, Camille Corot13 is said to have replied: “He was at times truly a master, and one of the finest. Certain of his small canvases are masterpieces and full of fine example and sound counsel for all of us, young and old alike. I admire and I respect him, since, you see, I owe him a great deal, if not my very best.”14

The work is to be included in the catalogue raisonné currently being prepared by Stéphane Rouvet, who has kindly confirmed its authenticity.

  1. Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), Jean-Victor Bertin (1767–1842) and Nicolas-Didier Boguet (1755–1839).

  2. Jean-Pierre-Xavier Bidauld (1745–1813).

  3. Suzanne Gutwirth, Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld. (1758–1846) peintures et dessins, Nantes 1978, biography, n. p.

  4. A Brush with Nature. The Gere Collection of Landscape Oil Sketches, exh. cat. The National Gallery, London 1999, p. 32.

  5. Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714–1789).

  6. He is known to have visited Tivoli, Narni, Subiaco, the Sabine Hills as well as Monte Cavo and Monte Soratte.

  7. Amoris causa. Trophées des peintres voyageurs 1750–1850, exh. cat. Galerie Lestranger Paris 2004, p. 12.

  8. Ibid., p. 12.

  9. Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld, Gorge at Cività Castellana, late 1780s, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 50 x 37.5 cm, Nationalmuseum of Sweden, Stockholm, inv. no. NM 6776

  10. Ibid., p. 10.

  11. Charles IV of Spain (1748–1819), Joseph Bonaparte (1768–1844) and Princess Caroline Murat, née Bonaparte (1782–1839), who commissioned four large-format paintings for the Élysée Palace. These still adorn the Salon Murat in which the French Council of Ministers holds its meetings.

  12. Suzanne Gutwirth, Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld. (1758–1846) peintures et dessins, Nantes 1978, biography, n. p.

  13. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796–1875).

  14. Jules Laurens, La légende des ateliers, Carpentras 1901, p. 288; (; accessed : 18.10.2023)

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