Barbizon School of Landscape Painting
Plein Air Painting Movement: History, Characteristics.

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Ville d'Avray (1867) Jean-Baptiste Corot.
National Gallery, Washington DC.

Barbizon School of Landscape Art (1830-75)


What is the Barbizon School?
Origins and History
Characteristics of Barbizon Landscape Painting
Barbizon Painters
Artist Schools/Colonies Inspired by Barbizon

Forest of Fontainebleau (1867)
By Theodore Rousseau
Bordeaux Museum of Fine Arts.

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What is the Barbizon School?

An important movement in French painting, the term 'Barbizon School' refers to a group of painters who, around 1848, settled in and around the French village of Barbizon near the Fontainebleau forest. They were also known as the Fontainebleau School and their work is regarded as the strongest movement of purely landscape painting in nineteenth century France. Noted above all for their plein-air painting, Barbizon artists developed a remarkable naturalism, minutely observing natural settings. In so doing, they rejected many of the canons of academic art in their quest to establish a new and prosaic form of realist painting - an idiom that led directly to the socially aware realism of Gustave Courbet. Their paintings are mostly landscapes of plains, trees and forests, all rendered in a fluid style. The most famous representatives of the Barbizon School are Camille Corot and Theodore Rousseau, the latter being the organizer and leader of both the group and proponent of its theories. Other noteworthy figures were Jules Dupre (1811-89), whose work was characterized by the sombre use of light, and Jean-Francois Millet, a true innovator because of his unusual subject matter, which exalted the world of peasants and rural labour. Charles-Francois Daubigny, a specialist in landscapes featuring riverbanks, was also an important member of the group, as was the Spanish-born painter Narcisse Diaz de la Pena (1807-76).

The Gleaners (1857)
By Jean-Francois Millet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

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Origins and History

Strongly influenced by 17th century Dutch landscapes, and outdoor painters like John Constable (1776-1837) and Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28) of the English Landscape Painting tradition, the Barbizon School was an important step in the development of French landscape art away from Romanticism towards Realism. Perhaps not surprisingly for people whose country had been ravaged by the horrors of revolution, then war, French artists willingly went out in search of nature - the 'real' France - which they portrayed in plein air Provincial settings. For conviviality and economy, they set up a number of rural artistic colonies - in places like Barbizon, and later at Grez-Sur-Loing, Pont-Aven, and Concarneau. (Similar artist colonies were set up at Skagen in Denmark, Abramtsevo in Russia, and at Newlyn, England). In America, the Barbizon outdoor style superceded the Hudson River School thanks to the efforts of George Inness (1825–1894). These movements and groups produced many of the world's most famous landscape paintings, and were instrumental in making the nineteenth century a golden age of landscape art, culminating in the decorative optics of Monet's Impressionism.


Characteristics of Barbizon Landscape Painting

Barbizon painters rejected the classical tradition of landscape painting - exemplified by the likes of Claude Lorrain (1600-82), Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) or Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) - with its carefully polished studio compositions in which intellectual scenery merely served as a backdrop for high-minded historical narratives. Instead - in the manner of earlier Dutch painters like Salomon van Ruysdael (1602-70), Aelbert Cuyp (1620-91), Jacob Van Ruisdael (1628-82) and Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709) - Barbizon artists sought to capture the actual light of the countryside and the actual colour they saw, rather than the intellectual scenery created by the likes of Claude Lorrain (1600-82), Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) or Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806). Put another way, they painted with their eyes not their head. Their principal technique was plein-air painting: unlike previous artists, who might make a few brief sketches outdoors but then retreat to their studios to begin painting, Barbizon members spent much more of their time painting direct from nature. This immersion in their surroundings led to a focus on the details of rural life, its seasons and - above all - its changing light and colour. The focus on everyday visual detail had a major influence on both the social realism of Gustave Courbet (1819-77) and the Impressionist paintings of Monet, Pisarro and Sisley. (In this regard see also Realism to Impressionism.) However, as we shall see, Barbizon "realism" was tinged with a high degree of romanticism and stopped well short of Corbet's full-blooded radicalism. See it rather as a devotion to naturalism rather than realism proper.

Barbizon Painters

Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) was the driving force behind Barbizon. However, his pleinairism found few favours with the conservative French Salon, who took several years to appreciate his talents. Rousseau's scenic paintings (eg. Sunset in the Auvergne (1830); Paysage Panoramique (1830-40); Forest in Boisremond (1842); Forest of Fontainebleau, Morning (1850) dispensed with the convention of inserting human figures in order to interpret or animate the landscape. He allowed Nature to speak for itself, thus paving the way for Impressionist landscape painting. Like several others, he was part-romantic and part-realist, being animated by the spirit (Romanticism) and also by the appearance (Realism) of the countryside.

More famous than Rousseau, but no less devoted to plein-air painting, the older Camille Corot (1796-1875) created his own unique style of highly appealing soft-edged romanticism, triggering the observation that he "painted with the eye of a Realist, but the heart of a Romantic." His paintings - such as Ville d'Avray (1875), Rural Scene (1875) and The Bridge at Narni (1826) - reveal his feeling for colour harmony based on the use of fine tonal gradations. Indeed, his use of colour to create a sense of perspective and capture the mood of the scene is invariably remarkable. It is Camille Corot to whom the Impressionists owe the greatest debt.

By contrast, Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75) - himself the son of a Normandy peasant - was a committed realist. After training under a local painter at Cherbourg and then in Paris (1837) under Delaroche, he moved to Barbizon in 1849 and remained there for the rest of his life. A fundamentally devout man, many of his landscapes - like The Angelus (1859) and Man with a Hoe (1862) - portray the back-breaking almost holy simplicity of peasant life. In fact, Millet's works are closer to genre painting than landscape, but his depiction of the countryside in realistic rather than pictureque terms had a great influence on the landscape genre as a whole. The titles of his paintings alone are sufficient to convey his down-to-earth approach to art: Peasant with a Wheelbarrow (1848-52), Trussing Hay (1850), Peasant-Girls with Brushwood (1852), Farmer Inserting a Graft on a Tree (1865), Buckwheat Harvest: Summer (1868-74), Haystacks: Autumn (c.1874). Also, like other rural painters, he was a strong advocate of plein air art. The Barbizon School in France never recovered from Millet's death in 1875.

Another pupil of Delaroche was the painter Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878), noted for his enthusiasm for pleinairism, who used delicate hatching in pure colour in a style reminiscent of later Impressionists like Monet (1840-1926) and Renoir (1841-1919), to create his own brand of tranquil landscapes.

For an explanation of 19th century landscape paintings, like those produced by Barbizon painters, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Constant Troyon (1810-1865) specialized in the painting of animals. In fact he was the first painter of animals of his era. He learned to draw at the Sevres porcelain factory and later studied with Victor Bertain, a historical painter. In around 1830, he began painting landscapes, depicting the environs of Paris, and Tourain. His fondness for studies of nature led him to make contact with the landscape painters of the Barbizon School, of which he was soon considered one of its most notable members. Later, he began to include large animals, especially cattle, into his landscapes, inspired by the Dutch animal painter Paulus Potter, whose works he studied on a trip to Holland in 1847. His last works were seascapes, painted very freely, which had an influence on Impressionists Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and Eugene Boudin (1824-98). His style was naturalistic, with confident execution and wonderful colour.

Noted for his capture of the glistening light found in forest clearings, Narcisse Diaz de la Pena (1808-1876) was a French painter, the son of an exiled Spanish family. Orphaned at a young age, he began work as a porcelain painter in the Sevrres factory. His first exhibit was at the 1831 Salon. The influence of Delacroix and Rousseau, as well as his friendship with Millet, led him towards a type of landscape painting that was clearly personal and innovative, with a very sketchy style, large brushstrokes, and patches of sombre colour. His stormy nature scenes often harboured lovers, medieval figures, or mythological characters, as in The Pearl Fairy, Venus and Adonis, Oriental Woman and Path Through the Forest. A patron and friend of the young Pierre-August Renoir (who also began his art career as a porcelain painter), he and his work was greatly respected by the Impressionists.

The landscapist Jules Dupre (1811-1889) was one of the more dramatic members of the Barbizon group. He first exhibited at the Salon in 1831, and three years later was awarded a second-class medal. In the same year he came to England, where he was deeply impressed by the genius of John Constable. From him he learned how to express movement in nature; and the area around Southampton, with its wide, unbroken expanses of water, sky and ground, gave him good opportunities for studying the tempestuous motion of storm-clouds and the movement of foliage driven by the wind. Dupre's colour was sonorous and resonant, while his preferred subjects were dramatic sunsets and stormy skies and seas. Late in life he changed his style and gained appreciably in largeness of handling and arrived at greater simplicity in the handling of colour harmony. Among his chief works are the Morning and Evening at the Louvre, and the early Crossing the Bridge in the Wallace Collection.

Other landscape painters associated with the Barbizon School include: the animalier Charles-Emile Jacque (1813-1894) and the drawing master Henri-Joseph Harpignies (1819-1916) noted for his pictures of children in a rural landscape setting, as well as the sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875) who specialized in exotic animals in small heavily impastoed country scenes.

Dutch/German painters and collectors were particularly enthusiastic about Barbizon School paintings: see Post-Impressionism in Holland (1880-1920), and Post-Impressionism in Germany (c.1880-1910).

Artist Schools/Colonies Inspired by Barbizon


Another popular colony of French nineteenth century plein-air artists, inspired by Barbizon, was the Breton village of Pont-Aven on the south coast of Brittany. The Pont-Aven school was most active in the 1880s and 1890s, when famous painters like Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Paul Serusier (1864-1927) were exploring Post-Impressionism. In particular, they sought to replace the naturalist approach of Claude Monet's Impressionist paintings with a non-naturalistic colour scheme, outlined forms and clear patterns. in addition, they sought to inject human significance into ordinary scenes by means of a hightened use of colour and form and emphatic delineation. Irish landscape artists who worked at Pont-Aven, included: Augustus Nicholas Burke (1838-91), Aloysius O'Kelly (1853-1941), Roderic O'Conor (1860-1940), Nathaniel Hill (1861-1934), Walter Osborne (1859-1903), Norman Garstin (1847-1926), and Joseph Malachy Kavanagh (1856-1918).


Another village in Brittany, Concarneau, was the site of a third French congregation of landscape artists at the end of the century. The Impressionist landscape and genre painter William John Leech was one of the Irish artists who worked in Concarneau. See also: Plein-Air Painting in Ireland.

Britain: Newlyn School and Glasgow School

During the 1880s, no doubt influenced by the formation of Barbizon, Pont-Aven and Concarneau in France, the Cornish fishing town of Newlyn began to attract plein air English landscape artists, attracted by the scenery, light, and seascape of West Cornwall. Members of the Newlyn School included Stanhope Forbes, Frank Bramley and others. Newlyn painters practised the Impressionist method of working outdoors en plein air, and incorporated subject matter drawn from rural life. Newlyn style fine art is exemplified by A Hopeless Dawn (1888) by Frank Bramley. Scotland's Glasgow School of Painting (1880-1915), led by James Guthrie and John Lavery, was another group of progressive painters who adopted the Barbizon plein-air methods, with great success.

In addition, the radical Italian painting group known as the Macchiaioli, who were active in Florence during the period 1855-65, were also inspired by the open air techniques of the Barbizon school.

Works reflecting the Barbizon style of painting can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world.

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