A guide to the Barbizon School

In the 1830s, the tiny French village of Barbizon became the centre of a quiet revolution in landscape painting that would have a defining influence on the Impressionists and their successors. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s, we look at the artists who ‘had a strong belief in painting things as they saw them’

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Les hauteurs de Sevres - Le chemin Troyon, 1835-40

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Les hauteurs de Sèvres — Le chemin Troyon, 1835-40. Oil on canvas. 9¼ x 14½ in (23.5 x 36.8 cm). Sold for $352,800 on 24 May 2023 at Christie’s in New York

When the painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) first came to the forest of Fontainebleau in 1822, he was in search of subject matter that would offer an antidote to France’s urban and industrial ills.

Disillusioned with Napoleon’s wars and what he saw as his country’s materialism, he was like the world-weary protagonist of Etienne de Senancour’s 1804 novel Obermann — exhausted by the evils of life and indignant at the ‘perfidious seduction of pleasures’.

Only 40 miles southeast of Paris, Fontainebleau was a place of extraordinary beauty where Corot could paint directly from nature. Setting out each morning, he recorded the changing effects of light and weather before returning home to transcribe these observations into melancholy landscapes suffused with a pale, silvery light.

The Barbizon colony

By the late 1830s, other painters keen to escape the dehumanising effects of modern civilisation had joined Corot in this bucolic wilderness.

‘They were not Romantic artists,’ says Alastair Plumb, specialist and head of sale at Christie’s 19th Century European Art department. ‘There was nothing melodramatic in their intentions. They had a strong belief in painting things as they saw them.’

The artists stayed in the village of Barbizon, which was situated between the plains and the forest, offering them a choice of vistas.

‘They were the first artists to paint en plein air,’ says the specialist. ‘Thanks to technical developments in paint manufacturing, there was no longer any need to mix up pigments in the studio — they could just take their paint with them.’

Key artists of the Barbizon school

Today, Corot is considered the forerunner of the Barbizon movement — sometimes called ‘the beautiful school of 1830’ — which played a major role in establishing naturalism in French landscape painting. Other artists associated with the group include Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet, Charles-François Daubigny, Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Peña, Jules Dupré, Constant Troyon, Léon Richet and Honoré Daumier.

By all accounts, the colony was a busy network of creative energy and congenial company. Friendships were sustained by painting excursions, shared accommodation and financial assistance for those who needed it.

Rousseau spent his days in the forest, striving to ‘penetrate the heart of discoveries’. Daubigny built a floating studio from which to observe the riverbank and its mirrored effects on the water. Diaz, the most sociable of the group, made things happen, inviting like-minded artists to Barbizon and organising exhibitions.

Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878), Étaples. Oil on panel. 16½ x 32⅛ in (42 x 81.5 cm). Estimate: £12,000-18,000. Offered in British and European Art on 14 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

There were discreet acts of generosity: Rousseau bought one of Millet’s paintings anonymously; Corot purchased a house for the penniless Daumier; and Daubigny came to Claude Monet’s aid in London by introducing the young Impressionist to an art dealer.

Barbizon versus the Salon

Such support was critical. It is difficult to imagine now, but in 1830 landscape painting was not an officially recognised art form. Historical paintings in a landscape setting were fashionable, but to display a direct study from nature was unthinkable.

This put the Barbizon artists in a precarious position. They needed the support of the Paris Salon for commercial success, yet rejected the standards it imposed. Their objections were summed up by the poet Charles Baudelaire, who described the Salon as a place ‘where the frills and excesses of bourgeois stupidity are paraded every year as though on the Tuileries Terraces’.

Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867), L’étang, coucher de soleil, 1848. Oil on panel. 10 x 13 in (25.1 x 33.5 cm). Estimate: £10,000-15,000. Offered in British and European Art on 14 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

Théodore Rousseau

One artist who was consistently snubbed by the Salon — becoming known as le grand refusé — was the charismatic, quietly revolutionary Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867). He first came to the forest in his early twenties, staying at the Ganne Inn, whose garrulous owner was generous with credit.

Baudelaire, who considered Rousseau to be the best of the Barbizons, championed his restless originality and direct observation of nature.

As Plumb notes, Rousseau was also a technical innovator: ‘He was one of the first artists to use the newly invented green and yellow pigments. Those fresh colours are very immediate and modern. He was also very experimental in the way he applied paint.’

Jean-François Millet

If Rousseau was Barbizon’s leader, then Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) was its mainstay, living in the village until his death. The son of devoutly Catholic Normandy farmers, Millet saw in Barbizon a place where he could convey the spiritual relationship between humanity and nature.

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), L’Horizon (La plaine), circa 1868. Pastel and crayon noir over pencil on paper laid down on board. 19¾ x 24½ in (50.1 x 62.2 cm). Sold for $1,985,000 on 27 October 2014 at Christie’s in New York

He took it upon himself to celebrate sowers, milkmaids and farm labourers, arguing that the beauty of the landscape could not be considered in isolation from those who worked the land.

The Barbizon school, Realism and Impressionism

By the 1860s, Corot was so famous that painters travelled to Barbizon from all over Europe, Russia and the United States to meet him and his fellow ‘sons of light’. In one year, the Ganne Inn hosted 28 aspiring artists from across the world.

The Barbizon school also became associated with the wider art movement known as Realism, which included Gustave Courbet and Jules Breton, painters who sought to record modern life in meticulous detail.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Le moissonneur (d’après Millet), 1889. Oil on canvas. 17 x 9⅝ in (43.3 x 24.3 cm). Sold for £24,245,000 on 27 June 2017 at Christie’s in London

The Barbizon school’s greatest influence, however, was on the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. Those early, nuanced attempts at capturing the fleeting play of light on nature inspired Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro to come to Barbizon, while Vincent van Gogh’s admiration for Millet was so intense he made countless studies of the artist’s work. In a letter to his brother Theo in 1884, he wrote: ‘To me, Millet is that essential modern painter who opened the horizon to many’.

The market for Barbizon artists, then and now

While the French art market was slow to embrace natural Realism, demand from abroad was considerable. Thanks to the well-connected American artist and Barbizon disciple William Morris Hunt, Corot was overwhelmed with commissions from the United States. He eventually established an atelier and employed his fellow Barbizon artists to assist him. (This demand also resulted in forgeries: ‘There are more Corots in America than he could have painted in his lifetime,’ says Plumb.)

Today, the strongest market for the Barbizon group is Asia. ‘The appreciation of nature has a long tradition in Japan and China, and landscape painting is something the Asian market is very comfortable with,’ says the specialist. ‘Rousseau and Millet collected Japanese prints, so there is a reciprocal relationship there too.’

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The eco-artists of Barbizon

Vocal about their belief in the preciousness of nature, the Barbizon artists battled to preserve the forest of Fontainebleau from destruction, with Rousseau petitioning Napoleon III.

Yet by 1870, the forest’s exalted silence had been replaced by the rattle of trams, Daubigny’s river had been diverted for industrial farming, and Millet’s open skies were clouded with factory smoke.

Nonetheless, the Barbizon school played an important role in reminding society that another, humbler life was possible for those prepared to commit to it. As Millet wrote, ‘Nature yields herself to those who trouble to explore her, but she demands an exclusive love.’

Explore art from antiquity to the 21st century at Classic Week, 1 to 15 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

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