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: The Barbizon Painters


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The American public holds an extraordinary regard for a little group of painters who worked about the middle of the last century on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau. Barbizon is the village that harbored them, in low stone cottages flanking the narrow streets. These men were typical of the French people, and it seems strange now that Americans should not have taken their idea of Frenchmen from such stalwart folk as these rather than from the Parisian boulevardiers of the Third Empire; for it is today clear that frugality and generosity, refinement and power, are outstanding qualities of the people. These men were pioneers, turning from the artificial life of the city to find an intimacy with woods, fields and peasant life.In the early nineteenth century Parisian artists were divided into opposing camps, Classicists and Romanticists; but these younger men saw no reason why they should seek the frigid orderliness of Roman art, as men then imagined it, or the emotional romance of the Middle Ages-enough for them to paint the friendly outdoors, with man and his companionable animals.A great stimulus had been given them by the appearance in the Salon of 1824 of fresh and natural landscapes by the Englishman Constable and Bonington—no Cupids or Venuses, no captives languishing in dungeons, no pyramidal compositions and statuesque forms, but green meadows and trees, long reaches of sandy shore and wet misty English skies.It was some little time before French landscape painting reacted to the influence, but by 1833 we find Rousseau painting outdoors at Barbizon. Then came Millet, who deliberately gave up a brilliant career in Paris to live close to the realities of life in a peasant's cottage. Corot, Diaz, Troyon and Daubigny followed. Jules Dupre lived at Ile Adam, but was much associated with the Barbizon group.From the paintings of these men one could imagine that they went out together and sat down by the edge of the forest to paint. Diaz looked into the woods, charmed by the play of light and shadow on the smooth trunks of the aged beech trees. Rousseau looked from the woods as through a window and painted an expanse of meadow with a group of trees to give a measure to the great space, with inconspicuous cattle grazing. Millet, always most sensitive to the human element, saw a peasant at work and caught the swing of his body and limbs, expressing the dignity of labor for the bread of mankind. That is no sentimental reading of his pictures but his own interpretation. His figures are always types, not individuals; and suggest not the sympathy of pity, but that of the artist who cannot but feel mingled power and pathos in the hulking forms that labor and suffer that man may eat. Troyon, on the other hand, sees only the cattle, for which the fields exist as background. And Corot sat beneath a tree and smoked his everlasting pipe, watching the others paint, and dreaming of what he had seen that morning at dawn while the others slept. His picture is no prose description, but poetry expressed in marvelously skillful technique. Earth and trees in silhouette of silvery gray make a fanciful pattern against the morning sky, from which the last star has just vanished, and beneath the branches dryads dance in rhythmic line. No classicist, Corot; but at dawn he had seen the great god Pan as clearly as though he had been a Greek.The technique of these painters is today considered antiquated. Their land and trees are much darker than nature shows things in daytime. But by taking that liberty, they gained a strong contrast with their sky—much nearer the truth than is possible to the modern who keys up his foreground as near as possible to nature's brightness and then has no reserve to gain contrast with his sky. On the other hand, the modern gains in contrast of hue and intensity of color unknown to the Barbizon painters. The artist today gives us freshness and purity of color; the Barbizon painter gives us simplicity of mass and power.The Institute has just purchased from the Dunwoody Fund, an important work of this school, Fontainebleau Oaks, by Jules Dupre.Dupre was born at Nantes in 1811. He had some early training in decorative painting in his father's porcelain factory, but he was mostly self-taught, and his work shows no reminiscence of porcelain. He painted landscape from nature and was awarded a second medal in the Salon of 1833. In the same year he went to England and studied there. When we speak of a man's painting nature as he saw it, we must always mean as he learned to see it, for each age sees it differently. So, for all Dupre's independence, it is clear that he came under the influence of Constable and he shared the character of vision of his associates of the Barbizon school. He died in 1889 at his home at Ile Adam.His works were usually more full of emotion than those of the other Barbizon painters except Millet and Corot, and he differs from them in showing his dramatic quality not in the human element of family life, but in the moods of nature as seen in varying skies and lights and in striking shapes of tree masses.Fontainebleau Oaks hung for several weeks this winter in the central gallery, where it attracted universal admiration. It is a large canvas, 32 x 39 inches in size. It has no touch of the dramatic, but great force. It possesses the very essence of the greatness of the Barbizon school, the touch of familiar nature raised to high power through its effective massing and simplifying of lights and darks. The sky is humid and luminous, and against it the great oaks give a feeling of majesty. Yet as you approach it, the fields become alluring and you discover the unobtrusive cattle in homely quietude. Close at hand it is intimate; from a little distance it is powerful. There is no greater painting by Dupre. It is a supreme example of nineteenth-century landscape.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Fontainebleau Oaks
    Jules Dupre
    32 x 39 inches
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Source: Rossiter Howard, "The Barbizon Painters," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 8, no. 4 (April, 1919): 25-27.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009