The Barbizon School were an informal group of artists who were active between about 1830-1870. They would gather to paint in the forest of Fontainebleau near the village of Barbizon, a name which later historians used to refer to them.
Origins of the Style
The Ecole des Beaux Arts was a dominant force in early nineteenth-century Paris, training artists to follow a strict, prescribed doctrine. They were taught to produce paintings and sculptures in a neoclassical style, emulating the traditional, well-worn path laid down by the old masters. Landscape painting was not seen as a subject in its own right, but instead provided a backdrop for idealised mythological, poetic or Biblical scenes, as seen in the lyrical, illustrative work of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain (Claude Gellée).
After years of protests, with artists calling for greater recognition of the landscape genre, the Ecole des Beaux Arts introduced a major new prize in 1817, the Prix de Paysage Historique. It gave artists the chance to live and work in Rome, although still encouraged a traditional, historical approach to landscape based around Biblical or classical themes. In 1824, John Constable’s The Hay Wain, 1821, was exhibited at the Paris Salon, which had a significant impact on Parisian art, revealing the power and wonder of the natural world and its’ ever-shifting landscape. Artists also began to revisit ideas in Dutch seventeenth-century paintings around this time, which captured the rugged, wildness of the weather.
The most progressive artists of the mid-nineteenth century Paris travelled to rural areas in the city’s outskirts including the royal parks of Saint Cloud, Versailles, and the forests at Fontainbleu, places that provided a quiet oasis to escape the clamour of the city. Beyond the dense forests and wastelands at Fontainbleu were a series of small villages where farm labourers and woodchoppers lived, including Barbizon, a popular site for artists, filled with an exotic array of trees, plants and grasslands. Barbizon’s Auberge Gann Inn offered cheap lodgings, and artists would gather there after long days painting in the wilderness to share ideas and techniques, a group that became known as the Barbizon School.
A New Landscape
The Barbizon School painters were rebellious trailblazers, rejecting the romanticised, fictional landscapes favoured by the traditional Parisian establishment and it bourgeois patrons. Instead, they took a new, progressive approach to landscape by working directly from nature, en plein air, often finishing paintings in one session. For these artists, Barbizon became a powerful symbol of artistic freedom, where they could disappear into the sensory wonders of nature. Despite constant rejection from the art establishment, they pursued their visions with a dogged determination, passionately driven by their cause. The most important members of the group were Jean-François Millet, Théodore Rousseau, Charles-Emile Jacque, Jules Dupré and Constant Troyon. Both Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and Charles Daubigny were also associated with the group. They rejected the melancholic romantic landscapes favoured by bourgeois patrons, and instead sought greater realism in their work by drawing directly from nature. Some of their rural imagery of woodland, peasants and livestock was inspired by Dutch seventeenth-century painting.
Barbizon artists' paintings were characterized by their glowing luminosity, earthy colours and rich tonal contrasts. They were a diverse group of various ages, backgrounds and styles, but united by their unflinching dedication to the French landscape of Fontainbleu. Writer Alfred Sensier later described these artists’ passion for their subject: ‘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 states of rocks and heath … all these intoxicated them with their beauty and their smell. They were, in truth, possessed.'
Artworks from the Barbizon School were largely ignored by the Parisian art establishment until well into the 1850s, when naturalism and painting from life gradually became a rising trend. Throughout the late nineteenth century in Paris the Barbizon School of painting was superseded by Impressionism, whose artists took en plein air techniques and sensory celebrations of nature in new, experimental directions, efforts that would have been impossible without their predecessors. Art tutor Charles Gleyre famously sent his students to Barbizon to paint, including Pierre Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frederic Bazille, while Edouard Manet made studies for his Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe, 1862-3 in the Barbizon area. Like the Barbizon School painters, many mid nineteenth-century artists throughout Europe were drawn to small, rural and unspoilt communities as an antidote to rising industrialisation, with groups congregating at areas including Pont Aven, Concarneau and The Hague, capturing the honest simplicity of a fading lifestyle.