1830 – 1870
In early nineteenth-century France, landscape painting was narrowly circumscribed by an aesthetic code upheld by the conservative French Academy. Painters and sculptors were rigorously trained in the Neoclassical tradition to emulate artists of the Renaissance and classical antiquity. In the hierarchy of historical subjects recognized by the Academy, pure landscape painting was not a privilege. At best, artists could hope to paint an idealized nature inspired by ancient poetry. The grand classicizing subjects of the seventeenth-century painters Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain presented other acceptable models.
Following in the path of Poussin and Claude, those eager to paint from nature went to Italy. There, among ancient monuments drenched in Mediterranean sunlight, they gathered to paint and draw directly in the landscape. Even if their open-air sketches retained the formal linearity of the Neoclassical aesthetic, those exercises, often made in the countryside surrounding Rome, freed artists to leave the studio—to fully experience nature, to look rather than copy, to feel rather than analyze.
In 1816, the French Academy introduced a Prix de Rome in Paysage Historique, historical landscape painting. The prize, awarded every four years, enabled its laureate to live and work at the Villa Medici in Rome, an opportunity conferred on promising French painters schooled in the academic canon. Intended to restore history painting to its seventeenth-century glory, the new Prix de Rome prompted a frenzy of excitement over landscape painting.
At the time, young artists were flocking to the Louvre to study seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish landscapes, a naturalist tradition long practiced in the Netherlands. The exhibition of John Constable’s pictures at the Paris Salon of 1824 further set the stage for this new genre in France. In warm weather, artists now ventured outside Paris to work from nature, traveling to the royal parks of Saint-Cloud and Versailles and to more far-flung areas of the country. No destination was more popular than the Forest of Fontainebleau. Once the unmapped preserve of kings and their royal hunting parties (given the proximity of the hunting lodge turned Château de Fontainebleau), the Forest of Fontainebleau became a sanctuary for the growing leisure classes, for whom a train ride from Paris was an easy jaunt.
Years later, already eclipsed by Impressionism, these pioneering painters of nature came to be called the Barbizon School. Despite differing in age, technique, training, and lifestyle, the artists of the Barbizon School collectively embraced their native landscape, particularly the rich terrain of the Forest of Fontainebleau. They shared a recognition of landscape as an independent subject, a determination to exhibit such paintings at the conservative Salon, and a mutually reinforcing pleasure in nature. Alfred Sensier, a close friend and biographer of Barbizon painters Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet, wrote of the romantic attraction of the Forest of Fontainebleau: “They had reached such a pitch of over-excitement that they were quite unable to work… the proud majesty of the old trees, the virgin state of rocks and heath… all these intoxicated them with their beauty and their smell. They were, in truth, possessed.”
Barbizon was more than just a place; it was an encompassing motif. Like other great motifs, it transcended geography. Inspirational and nurturing, even despite daily trials of frostbitten fingers at winter’s dawn or sunburned hands at summer’s midday, Barbizon answered the quest for landscape’s metaphoric power. The artists of the Barbizon School showed us the rapidly disappearing rural path to painterly “truth” well before the Impressionists trod the same forest and fields, carrying with them their factory-made satchels with metallic tubes of new pigments and their modern ways of seeing. Landscape painting was no longer subservient to history painting. It was history in the making. -THE MET