The Barbizon school of painters were part of an art movement towards Realism in art, which arose in the context of the dominant Romantic Movement of the time. The Barbizon school was active roughly from 1830 through 1870. It takes its name from the village of Barbizon, France, near the Forest of Fontainebleau, where many of the artists gathered. Some of the most prominent features of this school are its tonal qualities, color, loose brushwork, and softness of form.
The barbizon style maintain a realistic style, but with a slightly romantic intonation, characterized by their almost exclusive specialization in the landscape and their direct study of nature. This will influence the rest of 19th century French painting, especially Impressionism. They will usually take their notes outdoors to carry out their final works in their studies. They renounced the picturesque image of country life and began to analyze nature and its representation with a critical eye. This observation of the natural produces sentimental effects on the painter’s soul, so that his landscapes acquire a quite noticeable dramatic quality.
Instead of the images with historical, religious or mythological themes required by the classic canon, the representatives of the Barbizon school painted small-format landscapes. Characteristic of the school was the turn to realistic depiction of nature in contrast to the classical idealistic landscape composition. This new view of the paysage intimate, which was already leading to impressionism, became a hallmark of the group.
Since it was less the turning towards a certain goal than the turning away from academic classicism that was the connecting element of the group, the painters differed in their respective views.
In contrast to classic studio painting, the artists first made sketches under the open sky and later completed their works in the studio.
While most of the paintings are seen as more sentimental these days, some were considered radical at the time of their creation due to their social realism, such as the picture of pickers by Jean-François Millet.
The first to go to the side of the Fontainebleau forest was undoubtedly Camille Corot who explored this place in 1822. Unlike the painters who came there to practice representing trees, he was looking for the truest landscape he wanted to represent without frills or mannerism: a few kilometers from Paris, this forest offers the painter a a kind of reduced wilderness, far from the suffocating urbanism of the capital.
In 1824 the Salon de Paris exhibited works of John Constable, an English painter. His rural scenes influenced some of the younger artists of the time, moving them to abandon formalism and to draw inspiration directly from nature. Natural scenes became the subjects of their paintings rather than mere backdrops to dramatic events. During the Revolutions of 1848 artists gathered at Barbizon to follow Constable’s ideas, making nature the subject of their paintings. The French landscape became a major theme of the Barbizon painters.
The leaders of the Barbizon school were Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet, and Charles-François Daubigny; other members included Jules Dupré, Constant Troyon, Charles Jacque, Narcisse Virgilio Díaz, Pierre Emmanuel Damoye, Charles Olivier de Penne, Henri Harpignies, Paul-Emmanuel Péraire, Gabriel-Hippolyte Lebas, Albert Charpin, Félix Ziem, François-Louis Français, Émile van Marcke, and Alexandre Defaux.
Millet extended the idea from landscape to figures — peasant figures, scenes of peasant life, and work in the fields. In The Gleaners (1857), for example, Millet portrays three peasant women working at the harvest. Gleaners are poor people who are permitted to gather the remains after the owners of the field complete the main harvest. The owners (portrayed as wealthy) and their laborers are seen in the back of the painting. Millet shifted the focus and the subject matter from the rich and prominent to those at the bottom of the social ladders. To emphasize their anonymity and marginalized position, he hid their faces. The women’s bowed bodies represent their everyday hard work.
In the spring of 1829, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot came to Barbizon to paint in the Forest of Fontainebleau, he had first painted in the forest at Chailly in 1822. He returned to Barbizon in the autumn of 1830 and in the summer of 1831, where he made drawings and oil studies, from which he made a painting intended for the Salon of 1830; “View of the Forest of Fontainebleau'” (now in the National Gallery in Washington) and, for the salon of 1831, another “View of the Forest of Fontainebleau”‘. While there he met the members of the Barbizon school; Théodore Rousseau, Paul Huet, Constant Troyon, Jean-François Millet, and the young Charles-François Daubigny.
Subsequently, the invention of the gouache tubein 1841, the opening of a railway line in 1849, are all factors that accelerate the process: more and more painters go to Barbizon, to Chailly-en-Bière, to Bourron-Marlotte, to the point that the fashion is launched, that they are called ” open air “, that the press has fun in the form of caricatures, showing dozens of painters massed in front of their easels, each under an umbrella (L’Illustration, November 24, 1849). This affluence and the arrival of the train naturally led to the opening of numerous infrastructures: restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, allowing painters to stay longer.
During the late 1860s, the Barbizon painters attracted the attention of a younger generation of French artists studying in Paris. Several of those artists visited Fontainebleau Forest to paint the landscape, including Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille. In the 1870s those artists, among others, developed the art movement called Impressionism and practiced plein air painting.
The Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh studied and copied several of the Barbizon painters as well, including 21 copies of paintings by Millet. He copied Millet more than any other artist. He also did three paintings in Daubigny’s Garden.
Both Théodore Rousseau (1867) and Jean-François Millet (1875) died at Barbizon.
The term “school” has been questioned by art historians since at least the 1950s, who dispute the idea that there would have been a “school” at Barbizon: here we are more concerned with a group of painters with very different styles, who, at very different times, found a source of inspiration in the forest of Fontainebleau. The name “Barbizon school”, coined in 1891 by a British art critic, David Croal Thomson (1855-1930), artificially since these painters never claimed to be of any school, takes its name from this village located on the edge of the Fontainebleau forest (Seine-et-Marne), around which many artists flocked for almost fifty years, between 1825 and 1875. Thomson was the director of the Goupil branch in London, a leading company in the world of printmaking, especially landscape trade.
Barbizon’s painting has been one of the sources of inspiration for many painters such as Hippolyte Camille Delpy, and particularly the Impressionist painters. The emergence of the Impressionist movement in the second half of the 19th century stemmed in part from the influence exerted by the painters of the Barbizon school.
The pioneers who explored these places were Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1822), Théodore Caruelle d’Aligny, Alexandre Desgoffe who went to paint in Barbizon before 1830, Narcisse Diaz de la Peña (1836), Lazare Bruandet, then Charles -François Daubigny (1843), Jean-François Millet (1849) and Théodore Rousseau, who are also considered to be precursors. Gustave Courbet seems to stay there from 1841 but more surely in 1849, and then until 1861. In the early 1850s Antoine-Louis Barye frequented Barbizonand eventually settled there, he rubbed shoulders with painters and produced many oils and watercolors.
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot
Effects and influences
The Barbizon school had a decisive influence on the Impressionists. These often went to the Fontainebleau forest, where they met the painters of Barbizon, in search of places for their plein air painting. Camille Pissarro was a pupil of Corot, who was regarded at that time as the leading landscape painters of France.
Influence in Europe
Painters in other countries were also influenced by this art. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, many artists came to Paris from Austria-Hungary to study the new movements. For instance, the Hungarian painter János Thorma studied in Paris as a young man. In 1896 he was one of the founders of the Nagybánya artists’ colony in what is now Baia Mare, Romania, which brought impressionism to Hungary. In 2013 the Hungarian National Gallery opens a major retrospective of his work, entitled, ”János Thorma, the Painter of the Hungarian Barbizon, 8 February – 19 May 2013, Hungarian National Gallery
Influence in America
The Barbizon painters also had a profound impact on landscape painting in the United States. This included the development of the American Barbizon school by William Morris Hunt. Several artists who were also in, or contemporary to, the Hudson River School studied Barbizon paintings for their loose brushwork and emotional impact. A notable example is George Innes, who sought to emulate the works of Rousseau. Paintings from the Barbizon school also influenced landscape painting in California. The artist Percy Gray carefully studied works by Rousseau and other painters which he saw in traveling exhibitions to inform his own paintings of California hills and coastline. The influence of the Barbizon painters may be seen in the extraordinary sporting dog paintings of Percival Rosseau (1859-1937), who grew up in Louisiana and studied at the Academie Julien.
One of the first literary works set in Barbizon or around its artists was the novel by Jules and Edmond de Goncourt titled Manette Salomon (1867).
The place of residence of most of the painters who passed through Barbizon between 1830 and 1870, the Auberge Ganne, opened in 1834 by François and Edme Ganne, was bought by the municipality and since 1995 has housed the Departmental Museum of the Barbizon School.