A SAUNTER through the nineteenth century at the Bowes Museum puts the visitor on The Road to Impressionism.

This is the title of the first in a series of major exhibitions planned to celebrate the legacy left by John and Josephine Bowes.

It is accompanied by important works on loan from the National Gallery and leading provincial galleries, giving people in this region a chance to see pictures by Monet, Renoir, Pissaro and Sisley alongside some of the best of the Bowes' collection.

Josephine Bowes, who was herself an accomplished amateur painter as well as an avid collector, died in 1874, the year of the first Impressionist exhibition. Her own painting style and the type of pictures she bought shows she was well up on changes taking place in the approach to landscape painting in France at that time.

It is difficult now to understand why such pictures were considered strange, and even shocking. Rural scenes and free brushwork are now, by and large, standard for all amateur art groups and thoroughly familiar to gallery visitors today.

The route which the exhibition takes starts helpfully with a classical ruin-filled landscape typical at the start of the century and ends with paintings by Seurat, Renoir and Monet painted two decades or so after Josephine's death.

The question is: how did art get from the idealised view of nature designed with careful studio-finish to inspire and uplift to the commonplace scenes of the 1880s depicted in fractured colours and blurred pigments with the visual immediacy of a fleeting moment?

With informative accompanying text at every step, the exhibition offers a well-signposted route aided by subsections under various headings: status of landscape; salon painting; rural versus urban, to name just a few.

A clue is found in a small painting, An Artist in a Landscape by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Guillemet, loaned by York Art Gallery, showing a tiny and sketchy figure seated at an easel, easily overlooked amid turbulent clouds, vigorous vegetation and formidable rocks.

Artists, increasingly, went outside and stayed there for long periods of time - rather than returning to their studios to reflect and compose - experiencing the effect of light and climactic changes and devising novel ways of recreating those things on canvas.

Josephine Bowes, who was herself often out with her palette, bought a considerable number of paintings by French artists of this period.

Many names that are now unfamiliar belonged to the Barbizon school which set out to depict nature in the raw. She also acquired several works by the gentle-minded Corot and harder-edge realist Courbet who is represented by the solid and lowering View at Ornans of 1864.

Pictures - their subject matter and style - can be a metaphor, conscious or otherwise, for the times in which they are created. It was not only painting that was becoming looser, more fluid, breaking down into component parts. The period itself was one of change, socially, economically and politically, and the exhibition touches on some of those aspects through the images and accompanying text.

Modern spectators may be particularly interested in the pictures of people, and will wonder, perhaps, which was most true: the rural idyll suggested by a peasant scything hay in glorious summer heat or the poverty of a mother and child seated on a bleak roadside. There is also a nice placing of Boudin's beau monde on the beach beside a picture of urban street cleaners with horse and cart.

The road finally arrives a long way from the starting point via many a country scene including several pictures by Alfred Sisley, who painted at Louveciennes where John and Josephine had a villa. Monet's Floodwater of 1893, Renoir's shimmering Lakeside Landscape, Seurat's Ville d'Avray and Pissarro's Midday rest illustrate where the changes had led.

They also point to the directions painting would take next; but that is another journey.

The Road to Impressionism continues until March 30. P F