The Muse Is in the Woods

The Barbizon School

Started: 1830
Ended: 1870

The Barbizon School was a loose association of artist who worked around the village of Barbizon, near Paris and the Forest of Fontainebleau, who were pioneers of the Naturalist movement in landscape painting. The artists of various backgrounds and practitioners of a diverse range of styles and techniques were drawn together by their mutual passion for en plein air and desire to elevate landscape painting from background to mythological or classical scenes to a subject in its own right. The ancient trees and rugged country views held a powerful inspiration to several generations of artists from Corot and Rousseau to Renoir and Manet.

Fontainebleau: Oak Trees at Bas-Bréau by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1832-33, oil on paper, laid on wood. Currently located by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

A reaction to the stylized and idealized paintings of figures and landscapes preferred by Neoclassicism, the artists that formed part of the school approached their paintings in a more naturalistic manner, they depicted the things they saw with honesty, making close observations and painting directly from natures to reproduce the colours and forms of the local countryside. Many of the works produced by the artists from the school contain figures, but are without narrative as echoes the wider tenet of the school that the landscape forms the main subject of the work. The exception being in Millet who by extending the concepts of Naturalism to include the human form, focused on rural labourers in the local area around Barbizon.

The painters of the Barbizon experimented with various techniques including completing a canvas in one sitting, the concentration of light effects on the landscape and wet on wet. They also used loose brushstrokes and a freer style which had a profound impact on the Impressionist artists who travelled to Barbizon to learn from members of the school.

Oak Trees and Pond by Jules Dupré, 1850-55, oil on canvas. Currently housed by Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

The Fontainebleau Forest first began attracting artists in the 18th century. The painters were drawn to the wild and varied landscape and the French legends and fables associated with the forest. In the early 19th century the arrival of Corot and Rousseau made the area a magnet for artists.

In the 1820s Corot began sketching and painting in and around Fontainebleau, although he never lived there he returned frequently and was an influential supporter of the Barbizon artists. The development of the Lyon railway system from Paris made easy travel to Barbizon possible and the Auberge Ganne provided somewhere for the artists to live and work, and became a hub for the artists to meet, exchange ideas and form collaborative partnerships. Over the next decades, the village of Barbizon and the surrounding environs became one of the primary art destination. During the Revolutions of 1848 many Parisian artists to escape to the relative safety of the countryside.

The Beech Tree by Jean-Baptiste Gustave Le Gray, 1855-57, Albumen silver. Currently location J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California, USA

The diverse interests and artistic styles of the School members were predominantly focused on landscapes and en plein air painting thus pioneering the ideas and concepts of Naturalism. Naturalism focused on portraying the subject matter truthfully and without artifice.

The Man with a Hoe by Jean-François Millet, 1860-62, oil on canvas. Currently housed by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California, USA

In Neoclassical tradition landscape painting was only given any relevance if it was presented in an idealized style as a backdrop for a historical or classical narrative. In 1816 the Prix de Rome for historical landscapes was launched by the French Academy to attract new artists to the style. Landscape painting attracted young artists, but many were drawn to viewing and studying the naturalistic landscapes of the 17th century Dutch painters such as Hobbema and Van Ruisdael.

Sluice in the Optevoz Valley by Charles-Francois Daubigny, 1854, oil on canvas. Current location Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA

Heavily influenced by the combined naturalistic treatment and Romantic sensibility of the work of John Constable, themes of Romanticism ran through the works of several of the Barbizon painters. They developed Constable’s impasto style and freedom of brushwork, which was later exaggerated further by the Impressionists. Their attachment to nature of the Barbizon painters most exemplified the Romantic Movement. Realism began in the mid-1850s with the focus on subjects such as modern conditions, the working poor and social reform.

The Great Oaks of Old Bas-Breau by Theodore Rousseau, 1864, oil on canvas. Currently housed by J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California, USA

Initially rejected by the Salon and largely ignored by the critics, the Barbizon painters only began to attain success in the 1850s. Rousseau finally ad three canvasses accepted in the 1849 and from this point on wards Naturalism became increasingly popular. From the 1860s the Barbizon School led to the formation of other groups of artists throughout Europe. Practicing in varying styles the artists were all drawn to the landscape and rural life.

©JG Farmer 2020

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