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Escape to the Forest: The Birth of Barbizon School

Theodore Rousseau, Panoramic Landscape near the River Moselle, 1830, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

Nature

Escape to the Forest: The Birth of Barbizon School

During the 19th century, the most promising artists trained at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. The academy taught its pupils the works of the Old Masters. Artists in the making were encouraged to adopt classical ideals in their paintings. However, a group of painters believed in the legitimacy of the landscape as an independent genre. Therefore they traveled to the outskirts of Paris in a venture to observe nature. Turning their attention to the beauty of the countryside, they formed Barbizon School.

Favored Themes for Paintings

In the early 19th century, any aspiring painter who yearned for success enrolled themselves at the National School of Fine Art (a branch of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture). There, artists followed a strict curriculum. They focused on legitimate subjects such as historical and mythological themes. Since the Neoclassical style of painting was popular, pupils depicted scenes using minimal color, straight lines, and clearly defined forms.

Barbizon School: Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Interest in Landscape Painting Rises

Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, landscape was not considered worthy enough to be a subject in its own right. Therefore, artists used it as a backdrop for idealized Biblical scenes. Throughout this period, painters who developed a passion for nature looked up to the French painter Claude Lorrain. Born in 1600, Lorrain settled in Rome and used the countryside to accompany his classical narratives. His paintings laid down an idealized way of painting nature for his successors to pursue.

Barbizon School: Claude Lorrain, The Judgment of Paris, 1646, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.
Claude Lorrain, The Judgment of Paris, 1646, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

In 1816, the School established a scholarship called Prix de Rome to enable art students to study a term at the French Academy in Rome. In order to determine the winner, young artists had to take to two tests. Firstly, candidates were required to paint a classical scene surrounded by nature. This was not the difficult part though, as they were already practicing the works of Old Masters. The second test, however, was the challenging one. They needed to paint a specific tree in detail. Their studies did not evolve around observing nature and as a result they did not have enough practice.

Barbizon School: John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821, The National Gallery, London, England, UK.
John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821, The National Gallery, London, England, UK.

In 1824, English painter John Constable found an opportunity to exhibit his works abroad. His six-foot painting The Hay Wain went on display at the French Salon. Revealing the beauty of the English countryside, it had a significant impact on Parisian artists. At the same time, inspired students started paying visits to the Louvre where they could study 17th century Dutch landscape paintings.

Barbizon School: Salomon van Ruysdael, River Landscape with Ferry, 1649, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.
Salomon van Ruysdael, River Landscape with Ferry, 1649, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

Creation of Barbizon School

In the early 1830s, the development of the Lyon railway system paved the way for easy travel. Furthermore, in an endeavor to learn from nature, painters traveled to the rural areas close to Paris. The town of Barbizon was close to the forest of Fontainebleau and had a newly found inn named Auberge Gann. It provided artists with cheap lodgings and rapidly became a hub where they could exchange ideas. As a result of these encounters, the Barbizon School was born.

Barbizon School: Constant Troyon, Road in the Woods, 1840, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Constant Troyon, Road in the Woods, 1840, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) was the driving force behind Barbizon School. The early years of his career saw many of his works rejected by the Salon which earned him the title le grand refuse. Therefore, realizing he had made little progress in gaining recognition in Paris, he moved to Barbizon in the 1830s. Soon afterward Camille Corot, Diaz de la Pena, Jules Dupre, Constant Troyon, Jean-Francois Millet, Charles-François Daubigny, and George Inness followed in his footsteps. Together they became the first generation of French painters to paint outdoors.

Barbizon School: Jules Dupre, Forest Landscape, 1840, State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, Russia.
Jules Dupre, Forest Landscape, 1840, State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, Russia.

Painting en plein air

The Barbizon School painters thought nature did not need anything else with it to appear on canvases. However, painting nature for its beauty in a realistic way was not something new in the field of art history. The Dutch and English painters created landscape paintings during the 17th and 18th centuries. What was revolutionary was painting directly from nature, outdoors known as en plein air.

Barbizon School: Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Forest of Fontainebleau, 1846, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA.
Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Forest of Fontainebleau, 1846, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA.

They experimented with different techniques such as applying wet paint onto wet paint or using looser brushstrokes. They also concentrated on the effects of changing light. Spending long hours outside, they realized the light was constantly changing. As they wished to capture both morning and evening effects, they started carrying two canvases with them.

Barbizon School: Théodore Rousseau, Forest of Fontainebleau: Cluster of Tall Trees Overlooking the Plain of Clair-Bois at the Edge of Bas-Bréau, 1849-52, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA.
Théodore Rousseau, Forest of Fontainebleau: Cluster of Tall Trees Overlooking the Plain of Clair-Bois at the Edge of Bas-Bréau, 1849-52, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Inspiring the Impressionists

The ambitious next-generation of painters who shared the same passion for nature and adopted painting open-air approach, captured scenes of everyday life in urban and suburban settings. They were known as the Impressionists. Members of Barbizon School thus laid the groundwork for Impressionism in their search for accurate depictions of light. Forerunners of the movement aimed at painting nature in its pure state. They traveled to Fontainebleau to learn from the members of the School.

Barbizon School: Jean-François Millet, Spring at Barbizon, 1868-73, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France.
Jean-François Millet, Spring at Barbizon, 1868-73, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

A prominent artist of the Impressionist movement, Camille Pissarro, studied the works of Barbizon School, especially those of Millet and Corot. Daubigny and Troyon’s paintings influenced the founder of French Impressionism, Claude Monet. As a young apprentice, he went to Barbizon to paint in the forest. Likewise, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frederic Bazille made trips to the village to sketch.

Barbizon School: Charles-François Daubigny, Apple Blossoms, 1873, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Charles-François Daubigny, Apple Blossoms, 1873, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Barbizon School’s legacy

Many of the Barbizon School’s members came from different backgrounds. However, the painters put their differences aside. Instead, they focused on shared passions. Despite a lack of approval from the art institutions, they remained determined. Their dedication helped to move landscape painting from a neglected subject, a mere background for neoclassical paintings to a major genre. A close friend of Millet and Rousseau, Alfred Sensier, wrote: “They had reached such a pitch of over-excitement that they were quite unable to work. Nature intoxicated them with its beauty and smell”. They were the pioneers of painting out in nature while their innovations shaped the minds of emerging Impressionist artists.

Barbizon School: Narcisse Virgilio Diaz de la Pena, Stormy Landscape, 1872, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA.
Narcisse Virgilio Diaz de la Pena, Stormy Landscape, 1872, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Today, art lovers who want to see the places that inspired Barbizon painters can take a six-kilometre route called The Painters’ Trail. The walk takes approximately two hours to complete and guides walkers from the village to the Barbizon School’s beloved forest, Fontainebleau.


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Based in Canterbury, Gokce holds a bachelor’s degree in History and Archaeological Studies and a master’s degree in Museum and Gallery Studies. She firmly believes that art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. If Gokce is not tucked into a cosy corner with a medieval history book, she can be found spending her evenings doing jigsaw puzzles.

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