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: Barbizon School Paintings from the Lindley Bequest


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Last June the Institute announced the receipt of a generous bequest from the late Mrs. Erasmus C. Lindley, formerly Clara C. Hill of St. Paul, consisting of five nineteenth-century French paintings from the famous collection of her father, James J. Hill. Two of the paintings, Corot’s Le Printemps de la Vie, and Delacroix’s Côte Barbaresque, were described at that time. The remaining three by Decamps, Millet, and Troyon, contemporaries and followers of Corot and Delacroix, are discussed in this issue of the Bulletin. Together with some twenty other works acquired by gift and purchase during the past thirty-five years, they provide the Institute with a representative group of mid-nineteenth-century French paintings including a number of examples of the Barbizon School. Some of them are by painters now almost forgotten, such as Decamps, but they are valuable nevertheless as a background for the understanding of the then revolutionary art of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, now well represented in the Institute by some of its recent purchases.The three paintings in the Lindley bequest date from the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, a period in which art, with the exception of that produced by Ingres, Delacroix, and Corot, was largely derivative. During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the theory of classicism, with its emphasis on order and historical anecdote, dominated painting.There was an open struggle between exponents of classicism and romanticism, resulting in the production of large salon paintings that served no purpose other than demonstrating the theories held by the opposing sides. But, in the third quarter of the century, romanticism won out as the artistic counterpart of the individualistic and liberal thought of the period.The chief exponent of romanticism was Delacroix, whose outstanding creative powers, in both subject matter and technique, make him one of the most original artist of all time. His interest in literary subjects, in France’s African colonies, and in landscape painting, especially that of Constable, was to have a tremendous effect on the rest of the painting produced in the nineteenth century, as may be seen in the works reproduced in this copy of the Bulletin. He had imitators by the hundreds, among the most talented of whom were Chasseriau, Delaroche, and Decamps. The Institute is fortunate in owning two paintings by Decamps, Job and His Friends, given by Mrs. Lindley in 1939, and The Sicilian Shepherd, bequeathed by her in 1949.Alexandre Gabriel Decamps (1803-1860) received his first training from his father and one of his father’s friends, a classical painter of the day. Later, he painted the standard themes of medieval troubadours and the Orient, popularized by Delacroix and the romanticists. A turning point in Decamps’ development was Job and His Friends for in addition to its classical order, we see in this work an exaggerated handling of gesture and light for the sake of drama. It is true that Decamps could be overdramatic in his conception of a subject, as well as careless in its execution. However, such is not the case in The Sicilian Shepherd, which the painter has handled with feeling and restraint. No doubt, the success of this painting lies in the fact that Decamps probably observed the scene as depicted. He was one of the first modern painters to travel extensively. Much of his fame in his own lifetime rested on his reportorial paintings of the Mediterranean and the Near East, which represented a daring new approach at that time. Although associated with the Romanticists because of his subject matter, Decamps, strictly speaking, did not belong to any school, but remained an independent. As such, he attained greater popularity than his contemporaries who were devoting themselves to landscape.One of the most important aspects of the romantic revolution in art was the return to nature for inspiration. Corot led the way, and the other painters associated with the Barbizon School followed. In the end, they succeeded in freeing landscape from superfluous historical or pedantic anecdote that had been popular since the founding of the French Academy in the seventeenth century. This school of landscape painters derives its name from a village called Barbizon, where the painters found within walking distance the greatest variety of terrain, ranging from cultivated fields to rough gorges and heaths.Barbizon is located on the edge of the Forest of Fontainbleau, where, as early as 1830, painters from Paris stopped at the village inn. By 1840, a number of competent artists had settled there, attracted by the cheap living and variety of inspiration to be found in the surrounding woods and fields. There was never an organized school of any sort in the village. In fact, it was simply a meeting place for various painters who came and went but who had one thing in common, their devotion to nature. Their goal was the analysis and reproduction of nature as they observed it.The group included, at different times, Corot, Millet, Daubigny, Rousseau, Diaz de la Pena, Troyon, Dupré, and others. Corot was unquestionably the greatest, and the Barbizon School might have remained of local or minor interest without his genius and guidance. The rest were intimate painters, seldom attaining the power of Corot, or the romantic passion of Delacroix. However, they were, for the most part, painstaking artists, who understood the work of their predecessors, who observed nature carefully, and who occasionally developed new effects.Each added something of his own interpretation to the rendering of nature, and developed a specialty. For example, Millet became famous for his representation of the peasant at labor. Dupré for his moods in landscape that correspond to human feelings, and Troyon for his paintings of animals. The Barbizon painters all felt a high regard for the work of such seventeenth-century Dutch masters as Hobbema and Ruysdael. Like Constable, they too were attracted by the clear vision of the Dutch, but, while Constable combined the Dutch influence with his own poetic interpretation of landscape, the Barbizon painters were more dependent on the Dutch for technique and subject matter.As difficult as it is for us to believe today, the Barbizon painters were bitterly attacked when their works first appeared in the great public exhibitions of Paris. In fact, hostility was so great that some thirty years passed before works by Millet, Rousseau and the others became popular. They were branded as revolutionists, much as Manet and the Impressionists were to be branded later. However, there was little that was revolutionary in their technique. The Dutch paintings that inspired them were not only part of their own experience, but of the public’s experience as well. The heart of the trouble lay in their selection of subject matter. France in the 1830s was changing into a bourgeois country. This middle class preferred the bombastic story-telling paintings of the classicists and weaker romanticists. The Barbizon painters deprived them of just what they wanted, a story in paint. It was only in the 1850s and ‘60s, when the middle class had grown more powerful and secure, that taste changed in favor of the Barbizon landscape, inspired by the Dutch and by nature. When these Barbizon works did become popular, the public could not buy enough of them and the Barbizon masters were, in turn, imitated all over the world.The Lindley bequest includes a fine example by Millet, perhaps the most characteristic of all the Barbizon painters. Normandy Pasture dates from the painter’s most mature period. Jean-François Millet (1814-1874) came from peasant background, from which he was to draw inspiration all his life. He had a most remarkable memory that served, even years later, better than any notes or sketches made upon the spot. His early training was under Delaroche, a follower of Delacroix who was more popular than Delacroix himself. Probably the most he derived from his contact was a heightened sense of the poetic. Millet’s technical approach to painting was conventional and distinguished only by his exceptional gift for draughtsmanship. From the early 1840s he concentrated on literal renditions of the peasant life he had known. Sincerely convinced of the dignity of labor, Millet portrayed it with a humanitarian sentiment that was an essential part of the age.Contemporary critics viewed his paintings with the utmost horror. Consequently, he experienced a severe struggle for existence until he gained the confidence of a number of other painters who shared his feelings. The revolution of 1848 brought a larger middle class into power, not unlike the Dutch middle class of the 1640s. Thereafter, Millet became popular to the point of adulation. The revolution of 1848 also brought about changes in the official juries of the day, which, in the end, favored the masters from Barbizon.Millet himself moved to Barbizon in 1848, remaining there the rest of his life and remaining faithful to his convictions. But however sincere Millet’s convictions were, they are not sufficient to compensate for his conventional handling of form. Because his subject matter overbalances his form, Millet does not occupy as important a position in the history of art as Corot. At his best, as seen in the Institute’s new painting, Millet portrays landscape with a poetic sense and a competent handling of light and color. Suddenly glorified at the end of his career, Millet’s reputation had gradually declined to its proper place. This decline was slow because of the almost incredible number of his followers in almost every country of the modern world. He is considered today as the best, after Corot, of the landscape painters working at Barbizon.Just as Millet stands out for his sentiment, Constant Troyon (1810-1865) remains best known for his objective paintings of domestic animals. Influenced by Potter and Cuyp, Troyon developed a naturalism that brought him quick fame and high prices. Few of the Barbizon group enjoyed more widespread popularity. His work found its way into most of the important collections in France and abroad, and was reproduced extensively by means of large size engravings. Landscape with Cattle and Sheep represents Troyon at his best and must be considered a major addition to the permanent collection.Today, we value the Barbizon painters as representatives of the taste of their era. Although they have been overrated in the past, we cannot dismiss them as being outside the main stream of creative art. However limited their achievements, we cannot minimize the fact that they freed landscape from the trivial anecdote and established it as the principal theme of an important type of painting. They painted landscape for its intrinsic delight, and their paintings, if less important than others of the nineteenth century, continue to please us. Their many imitators have fortunately passed on, but their true influence remains in the work of Pissarro and other Impressionists who learned much about landscape and the moods of nature from the Barbizon group. The paintings that Mrs. Lindley bequeathed provide us with invaluable background for the greater appreciation of modern art.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Job and his Friends by Alexandre Gabriel Decamps. French, 1803-1860
    Gift of Mrs. Erasmus C. Lindley, 1939
  2. Normandy Pasture by Jean-François Millet. French, 1814-1874
    Bequest of Mrs. C. Lindley
  3. Fontainbleau Oaks by Jules Dupré. French, 1811-1889
    Dunwoody Fund, 1919
  4. Landscape with Cattle and Sheep by Constant Troyon. French, 1810-1865
    Bequest of Mrs. Erasmus C. Lindley
  5. River Scene by Henri Harpignies. French, 1819-1916
    Gift of an anonymous donor, 1941
  6. The Sicilian Shepherd by Alexandre Gabriel Decamps. French, 1803-1860
    Bequest of Mrs. Erasmus C. Lindley
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Source: "Barbizon School Paintings from the Lindley Bequest," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 39, no. 22 (June, 1950): 106-112.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009