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​5 minutes with… A revolutionary landscape owned by one of the Monuments Men

Not only can this small painting by Theodore Rousseau be considered groundbreaking, it also boasts a fascinating provenance, as specialist Laura H. Mathis reveals

This small but significant work by Theodore Rousseau came to Christie’s via a simple enquiry on the website. ‘This is the kind of thing we love,’ says Laura H. Mathis, a specialist in 19th-century European painting at Christie’s in New York. ‘You open the message and think, “This is so cool”.’

Rousseau’s Paysage Panoramique  represents a turning point in art history. Painted circa 1829, this ‘beautiful, freely handled’ oil sketch en plein air  was groundbreaking at the time. ‘It’s Rousseau standing in a landscape and painting exactly what he sees in front of him,’ explains Mathis. ‘Although this is not his first work executed en plein air, this is a very early example and as such part of a revolutionary moment in French landscape painting, and important in the later development of Impressionism.’

In the early 19th century, French landscape painting was idealised, classical and largely produced in the artist’s studio from historical reproductions. Stepping out of the studio was not exactly new, yet Rousseau’s radical decision to paint from life earned him the nickname le grand refusé, because his works were so frequently rejected by the Salon (the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, since 1667).

Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867), Paysage Panoramique, c. 1829-1832. Oil on board. 6 x 12⅜ in. Estimate $30,000-50,000. This work is offered in 19th Century European Art on 23 May at Christie’s in New York

Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867), Paysage Panoramique, c. 1829-1832. Oil on board. 6 x 12⅜ in. Estimate: $30,000-50,000. This work is offered in 19th Century European Art on 23 May at Christie’s in New York

Closer inspection of the work reveals that it was painted over an old bill of sale — an intriguing detail which neatly mirrors Rousseau’s internal conflict at this point in his life. ‘This is the exact moment in which he turned away from the business training that his father wanted him to take, and decided to become an artist,’ reveals Mathis.

If the painter of Paysage Panoramique  greatly contributed to the development of the Western canon, its owner played a vital role in preserving that tradition. Otto Wittmann, born in Kansas City in 1911, joined the US Army in 1941. By 1944 he had been drafted into the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) — the so-called Monuments Men, an international force of men and women tasked with protecting works of art across Europe.

During the Second Word War the Nazis looted art across the continent, sourcing material for Hitler’s pet project, the Führermuseum. Alongside his fellow Monuments Men, Wittmann sought to find, catalogue and ultimately return stolen masterpieces to their rightful owners.

When Wittmann's family brought the painting to Christie’s some 40 years later, they ‘casually mentioned’ that he had been one of the Monuments Men

The extraordinary story of the Monuments Men has been the subject of many books, including The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, and more recently a film starring George Clooney and Bill Murray. Mathis says the Monuments Men built up ‘fabulous connections with young museum professionals and art historians in Europe in the 1940s, and they continued to work together throughout their careers.’

After the war, these connections enabled Wittmann to greatly expand the holdings of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, where he served as director, transforming it into an influential collection during his 30 years in office. He would later become chair of the acquisition committee at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, before becoming its chief curator.

Wittmann bought Paysage Panoramique  in London in 1973. When his family brought it to Christie’s more than 40 years later, they ‘casually mentioned’ that he had been one of the Monuments Men.

‘One of the great things about Wittmann is that he was a true connoisseur,’ says Mathis. ‘This painting is not just rich in history, but by a significant artist who is often overlooked.’