Peinture sur le motif: from reality to canvas, through the eye of the artist

Live painting, placing easel and canvas in front of the subject in order to paint it in the exact instant the eye perceived it: this is “painting sur le motif” , in which who paints, does it having as only guide and inspiration the reality that faces , without drawings and preparatory studies.


Often associated with en-plein-air painting (it might be more correct to say that most of sur le motif painting is en-plein-air), this type of artistic approach finds its highest expression in the Impressionism of the late nineteenth century, with undoubtedly precursors in previous centuries: it seems that Caravaggio painted his figures in this way, portraying them live inside his atelier.


The real precursors of live painting, however, were the artists belonging to the famous Barbizon School, mythical area near the Fontainebleau forest, the first who believed that the world to represent would be outside their atelier. Each day, they went inside the forest, surrounded only by nature, painting fields, forests, swamps, with scrupulous attention to the contrasts of light, the color variations of the trees, branches, leaves.

Forest of Fontainebleau (1830) by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, along with Millet and Rosseau, one of the greatest exponents of the Barbizon School.

Behind the explosion of the sur le motif painting, typical of Impressionism, there is also a purely technical reason: the introduction and diffusion of tempera tubes, in fact, allowed artists to move easily, taking around everything they needed to paint.


Sur le motif painting can’t be reduced to a matter relating only to the place where painting happens. It implies, instead, a new way of understanding art, related to a different way to look at the world. No more searching for picturesque lines of a landscape, but the investigation on its true essence, variable, as the light that strikes and defines things, profiles, details.

From this concept were born the famous “series”, with the same subject represented at different times of day. The “Rouen Cathedral” series by Manet are the best-known example of this artistic movement.

The façade of Rouen Cathedral, painted by Manet in the different hours during the day.

Live painting has gone beyond the Impressionist period, and lasted until the present day, in different shapes combined by the same desire to transcribe on the canvas an immediate sense of perceived reality, unfiltered by previous studies or further reflections. «Donner l’image de ce que nous voyons en oubliant tout qui a paru avant nous» to quote Cézanne.


The Post-Impressionist painter François Gall, whose works are on display at Artrust spaces from April 18 to May 24, was one of the performers of this style during twentieth century. Trained at the School of Nagybánya in Transylvania – the Hungarian equivalent of the Barbizon School – Gall was able to carry on his canvases the vibrant atmosphere of Paris, the quiet of its parks, the light of the Normandy beaches, the green countryside of Quercy, but also the beauty of his wife and daughters, in the intimate moments of family life.

Gall did it both in his landscapes and portraits production, always painting with the subject in front of his eyes, rarely using sketches or preparatory studies. For many years the artist did not even own a real studio: every day, straw hat on his head, he installed his laboratory en-plein-air on the banks of the Seine or in Montmartre, and under his white parasol he captured the atmosphere of the city, the iridescent light of the seasons, the changing of the places and tendencies, creating paintings that are now  a witness of an era.

François Gall painting on the banks of the Seine, after the rain.
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