The Barbizon School
Summary of The Barbizon School
Pioneers of the Naturalist movement in landscape painting, The Barbizon School was a loose association of artists who worked around the village of Barbizon, located just outside Paris near the Forest of Fontainebleau. Members came from different backgrounds and worked in a range of styles but they were drawn together by their passion for painting en plein air and their desire to elevate landscape painting from a mere background to mythological or classical scenes to a subject in its own right. The rugged countryside and ancient trees of the forest held a powerful attraction and inspired several generations of artists from Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, and Jean-François Millet to Renoir and Manet.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- In reaction to the stylized and idealized depictions of figures and landscapes favored by Neoclassicism, most artists that formed part of the school approached painting in a naturalistic manner - capturing the things that they saw truthfully, making careful observations and painting directly from nature to faithfully reproduce the colors and forms of the countryside.
- Although many pieces produced by artists from the school contain figures, most are without narrative and this echoes the wider tenets of the school in that the landscape itself forms the main subject matter of the work. The exception to this is Millet who extended the concepts of Naturalism to the human form, focusing on rural laborers in the area around Barbizon and often including a social commentary in his art.
- The Barbizon painters trialed various techniques including applying wet paint onto wet paint, completing a canvas in a single sitting, and concentrating on the effects of light on the landscape. Many also worked using looser brushstrokes and a freer style than was traditional in Academic painting. These experiments had a profound impact on the work of the Impressionists who travelled to Barbizon as young artists to learn from the members of the School.
Overview of The Barbizon School
The Forest of Fontainebleau first began attracting artists in the 18th century including the Neoclassicists Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld, Théodore Caruelle d'Aligny, and Alexandre Desgoffe. The painters were drawn, not only, to the wild and varied landscape, but also to the French fables and legends that were associated with the forest. It was, however, the arrival of Corot and Théodore Rousseau in the early 19th century that made the area into a magnet for artists including Jean-François Millet, Charles-François Daubigny, Constant Troyon, Charles Jacque, and Narcisse-Virgilio Díaz de la Peña.
Important Art and Artists of The Barbizon School
This image of a section of the forest famous for its large Oak trees exemplifies the naturalistic treatment that Corot explored at Barbizon (having first developed the technique in Italy in the late 1820s). The colors of the earth, the rugged tree trunks, and their precise foliage are almost photographic in their rendering. The viewer's eye is drawn into the woods and to the sky above, where the shape of a billowing cloud echoes the foliage of the trees. Reflecting the Dutch landscape painters' practice of depicting the landscape in three horizontal bands, Corot expands the middle zone of the trees so that a sense of their vitality and expansiveness is conveyed.
In this early work from the group, Corot brought a modern directness to landscape painting, putting aside both the Neoclassic tradition of landscape as backdrop and Romanticism's preference for sublime nature, in order to simply portray the landscape as he saw and felt it. The simplicity of the subject matter and its detailed observation reflect this. Corot reused the large tree that forms the focus of the image in his painting Hagar in the Wilderness (1835) which was displayed at the Salon the same year.
Depicting a quiet pond, where a herd of cattle are drinking, this image emphasizes the towering oak tree that rises from the low horizon up to the stormy sky. The tree dominates the image, reaching out to the edges of the canvas on two sides and forming an intense focal point for the viewer against the whites and greys of the clouds. The herdsmen driving the cattle are barely visible, suggesting the insignificance of humanity in comparison to nature, represented by the oak. Whilst demonstrating a naturalistic treatment of elements within the image, the painting is essentially a product of Romanticism conveying the power of nature through both the oak tree and the dramatically lit clouds which threaten an impending storm.
Whilst visiting England in the early 1830s, Dupré encountered the work of John Constable. This landscape with its precisely depicted botanical details, muted but realistic hues, and subject matter showing a quiet scene of rural life demonstrates Constable's significant influence on Dupré. Dupré is sometimes credited with bringing the English style of landscape painting (of which Constable was a key proponent) to France. Whilst it is highly likely that Dupré popularized the style amongst members of the Barbizon School, Constable was certainly not unknown in Paris prior to this point due to his exhibition of paintings at the Salon.
This photograph depicts a single great beech tree in the Forest of Fontainebleau that seems to lean back as if tearing free of the earth and exposing its roots. As a result, the tree conveys a sense of movement, a dynamic energy, as its foliage fills up the picture frame, its trunk glowing with sunlight.
Le Gray's work brought the then new art of photography to the Barbizon School. He was one of the most important early French photographers, due to his iconic photographs, his technical innovations in the medium, and his influence as a teacher. His students included Charles Nègre, Henri LeSecq, Olympe Aguado, and Masime Du Camp. Like the painters, he often depicted the forest by focusing on particular trees, which became dynamic, central characters. As a result, a mutually influential relationship developed between photography and painting in Barbizon.
Useful Resources on The Barbizon School
- 1k viewsThe Barbizon PaintersGalerie Michael
- 9k viewsBarbizon: The Cradle of ImpressionismBy Scott Saraceno Media Productions
- 3k viewsMillet: The Pain of Pastoral Life: Millet's Impact on Van GoghOur PickBy art historian and scholar of Van Gogh Judy Sund. The Frick Collection
- Barbizon expert Steven Adams explores Narcisse-Virgilio Díaz de la Peña's Sunny Days in the Forest
- 187 viewsConversations on Connoisseurship: Corot and the Barbizon School of Landscape PaintersWestmont Museum
- Lecture: New Light on an Old Masterpiece: Théodore Rousseau's "Morning Effect"Our PickScott Allan, Associate Curator of Paintings, J. Paul Getty Museum / November 5, 2016 / Norton Simon Museum
- Unruly Nature: The Landscapes of Théodore RousseauOur PickBy Scott Allan, Edouard Kopp, and Line Clausen Pedersen
- The Barbizon School and 19th Century French Landscape PaintingOur PickBy Jean Bouret
- Drawn into the Light: Jean François MilletBy Alexandra R. Murphy, Clark Art Institute, Frick Art and Historical Center
- Corot: Masters of Art SeriesBy Madeleine Hours
- Théodore Rousseau: Unruly NatureBy the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
- The Barbizon School: French Painters of NatureOur PickBy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- Corot, Jean-Baptiste-CamilleBy the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
- Overview of Getty exhibition of photographer Gustave Le Gray (2002)
- In the Forest of Fontainebleau: Painters and Photographers from Corot to MonetExhibition by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (2008)
- Corot: The Bridge at NarniBy the Louvre Museum
- Corot: Chartres CathedralBy the Louvre Museum
- Rediscovering Daubigny, an Unsung Influence on the ImpressionistsOur PickBy Judith H. Dobrzynski / New York Times / March 14, 2016
- How Daubigny inspired ImpressionismBy Sam Kitchener / Apollo Magazine: The International Arts Magazine
- An Introduction to Jean-Baptiste-Camille CorotBy Judy L. Larson / Westmont Magazine / March 2013
- Art Review: Plucking Warmth From Millet's LightBy Michael Kimmelman / New York Times / August 1999