• France, Private Collection.
1824, Paris, Salon, no 1745, "Étude, d’après nature, des cascatelles de Tivoli."
From a modest background, Louis-Etienne Watelet was the son of a small wares merchant. He married the daughter of a commercial ship captain. Little is known about his training: he appears to have acquired the basics of his craft by himself and honed his technique by comparing himself to masters of historical landscape, such as Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes whose studio he supposedly frequented. Watelet stood out as a landscapist with a talent which Paul Huet considered superior to that of his rivals Bidault or Bertin. The painter observed nature attentively and punctuated it with antique ruins, and then mills after his return from Italy. As was common practice, the silhouettes which enlivened his pictures sometimes were the work of other painters; the hand of Demarne is recognizeable on many. Watelet also engaged in teaching: Caruell d’Aligny counts among the many students who frequented his studio.
The ease of Louis-Etienne’s craft which allies delicacy of brushstrokes with refinement of color harmonies comes first of all from his consistency. He exhibited every year in the Salon from 1800 to 1857, revealing eighty-seven canvases there for which he was regularly awarded, all the way to obtaining the Legion of Honor in 1824. That same year, he presented several views from his travels in Italy in 1822, wanderings which continued into the Dauphiné, Alps, Tyrol, and all the way to Belgium. Beside an Adjusted View of Lake Nemi, a volcanic lake situated southwest of Rome, and a watercolor “after studies done in Amalfi,”figured a “study after nature of the little cascades of Tivoli” under number 1745 which is certainly our oeuvre. Although Watelet did studies on site, his paintings were always retouched, even entirely recomposed in the studio. The mention “after nature” thus infers faithful retranscription of the observed landscape.
In our picture, the Tivoli cascades, dear to all the painters who went on the Grand Tour, can be recognized. The site was immortalized by the greatest, from Claude-Joseph Vernet to William Turner, and including Hubert Robert and Valenciennes. The landscape, a poetic succession of cascades against a background of antique ruins, was entirely natural the year in which Watelet painted it, but was tamed soon after. A violent flooding of the Aniene River in 1835 caused Pope Gregory XVI to have it deviated to preserve the town of Tivoli. The pontiff partially contained the cascades and constructed the city’s third key point on the site after the villas of Hadrian and the Este: the Gregoriana Villa.
Watelet excluded all architectural reference from his œuvre, such as the Temple of Sybille generally depicted by painters as overlooking the cascades. He stationed himself downstream from the river, on the right bank, facing the falls. The vegetation is treated with naturalist minutia: the artist’s palette deployed a wide range of greens heightened with glazes. With this backdrop, the water descends in vaporous foam, before expiring – limpid and serene - at the painter’s feet: it is true that Watelet owed part of his fame to the beauty and poetry of his pictures of cascades. On the shore, the brush has placed a woman in traditional costume and a traveler seated on his trunk, the only human presence in the virginal nature.
Watelet’s composition is very close to that of his contemporary Alexandre-Hyacinthe Dunouy (1757-1843), who painted The Cascades of Tivoli with the Temple of the Sibylle and a Shepherd in the Foreground in 1822 (oil on canvas, , 114 x 162,5 cm. private collection). It is tempting to imagine these two artists, who evolved in the same artistic circles, working together at Tivoli that year.
It is interesting to compare our work with another picture by Watelet, the Landscape with a River painted in 1825, which stages, with the same refined touch, the marriage of water and vegetation under a similar sky.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Lydia HAMRAMBOURG, Dictionnaire des peintres de paysages au XIXe siècle, Ides et Calendes, 1980.
Pierre MIQUEL, Le paysage français au XIXe siècle, 1824-1874. L’Ecole de la Nature, vol. I, Maurs-La-Jolie, La Martinelle, 1975.
Paul MARMOTTAN, L’École française de peinture, Paris, Renouard, 1886