Sunset over the Plain of Barbizon depicts the open fields outside the south-western edge of the village of Barbizon, at a point nearly opposite Rousseau's own home. Rousseau painted the scene at least three times, and the present version dates from about 1860.
Rousseau made a landscape painter out of himself during extensive travels throughout France in the late 1830s and 1840s, before settling in Barbizon about 1847. Often seeking out the most unpicturesque regions of the country, from the barren heights of the Auvergne to the great marshy expanses of the Landes, Rousseau learned to organize vast, nearly empty, spaces with sweeping rhythms of color and to animate his broad compositions with carefully observed meteorological phenomena and a highly individualized painterly touch. Sunset over the Plain of Barbizon brings these skills to bear on a scene that might rightly be described as his own backyard.
The Plain of Barbizon was a local designation for the arm of the great Plain of Chailly that extended around the southern edge of the village, ending in the walled bornage (limit) of the Forest of Fontainebleau on the east and fading off into the Plain and woodlands of Macherin to the southwest. In Rousseau's day, the area was only selectively farmed--the woman in the center foreground is cutting cabbages from a technically illegal extension of her kitchen garden, and the irregular stand of trees at the far left sheltered a number of half-wild fruit trees. Rousseau's home and studio stood just inside the village wall on the right, given access to the Plain by one of the arched gateways. The faint footpath running into the picture from the lower left corner became the Rue Théodore Rousseau early in the 20th century.
But for all the precision of Rousseau's observation, Sunset over the Plain of Barbizon is less a picture of a place than a celebration of an extraordinary twilight effect, a brilliant sunset breaking through departing storm clouds. The sun itself is largely masked by heavy clouds, but its fading glory is woven throughout the entire painting in reflections in small pools of rain water, glints of light sparked off stones and wet leaves along the village wall, and reverberations on the edges of the clouds that fill two-thirds of the composition. Those brilliant pinky-orange notes intensify the complementary gray-greens that are equally carefully worked throughout the landscape.
Sunset over the Plain of Barbizon has been passed down in the family of Quincy Adams Shaw, one of Boston's wealthiest citizens during the second half of the nineteenth century and the greatest single collector of Millet works--Shaw's paintings and pastels by Rousseau's Barbizon soulmate form the core of the Boston Museum's Millet collection. Shaw is believed to have started his Barbizon collecting with purchases from Rousseau himself; and Sunset over the Plain of Barbizon may have been acquired in Paris during Shaws' honeymoon trip in 1860-1861 or during a second visit at the time of the Exposition Universale in 1867.
We are grateful to Alexandra Murphy for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.
This painting will be included in volume II of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné on Rousseau by Michel Schulman