In early 19th century the French countryside was rarely used as a picturesque site for artists. Landscape painting was predominately dictated by the teachings of the conservative French Academy, which maintained that naturalistic landscape paintings were distinctly inferior to those based upon themes from classical history and mythology. Academic painters were taught that nature was best experienced not through the close contact with the flora, fauna of the countryside, but rather through idealized accounts of nature found in the ancient poetry of Homer, Virgil and Theocritus, and also in the paintings of 17th century painters Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin.
By the late 1820s the status of landscape painting grew unstable, as artists turned away from academic principles and began to seek subject matter they could relate to on a more personal and intimate level. They soon found that in the villages of Moret, Marlotte, Chailly and Barbizon, where they could finally commune with nature and find respite from the tedious and competitive art world of Paris. These artists were especially enamored with the forests of Fontainebleau, which was said to be largely unspoiled. In the presence of such pristine beauty, these artists could gain both a spiritual and physical connection with their subject matter, and form what they called a ‘sacred dialogue’ with nature.
By the middle of the century, Barbizon and its surrounding area had become one of the principal sites where artists could truly experience nature. Painters flocked to the region to take part in its beauty, eager to indulge in the romantic sentiments created by the natural world. After their expeditions into the countryside, the artists would reconvene in the villages to share ideas, discuss techniques, and rejoice in their passion for nature. These pioneering painters of nature had soon become known as the Barbizon School. Some of the most masterful of these artists include Theodore Caurelle d’Aligny, Theodore Rousseau, Constant Troyon, Charles Jacque, Gustave Courbet, Jean-Francois Millet, Camille Corot, and Charles-Francois Daubigny. Compositions such as Millet’s The Gleaners
, Rousseau’s Barbizon Landscape
, Daubigny’s Rising Moon in Barbizon
, Jacque’s The Old Forest
, and Corot’s Ville d’Avray
are notable masterpieces of the Barbizon School of landscape painting.
Some of these artists became known for their meticulous and polished finish of their work. Others were known for their bold, impulsive techniques. Some artists painted the untamed, uninhabited landscapes, while others chose to paint scenes from peasant life. Indeed, the diversity of the Barbizon area made it difficult for art critics to find labels to describe the new styles of naturalistic painting that was emerging. The only ties that seemed to bind the Barbizon artists were their commitment to abandoning formalism and drawing directly from nature.
In time, the popularity of the Barbizon School had grown to immense proportions. Images of the countryside had become widely celebrated and relatively few artists would have judged a picture upon the intrinsic dignity of subject matter alone. By the end of the century, historical and classical landscape painting was seen as an increasingly outdated style and virtually forgotten. Barbizon had answered the call for painterly truth, inspiring artists from around the world to immerse themselves in the beauty of the natural world and the possibilities of man’s connection to his environment.