On the edge of the Forest of Fountainebleau—once the hunting domain of French kings—lay the tiny village of Barbizon. As Paris grew more and more urbanized, its inhabitants yearned for a taste of the country and the Forest became a popular weekend tourist attraction. By mid-century guides to the forest trails had been published, taking the hikers on a proscribed and safe route through the ancient trees.  Nature no longer existed in the city and had to be visited, not only by weary city-dwellers but also byphotographers, such as, Charles Marville and Gustave Le Gray, and by painters who sought a true and real “nature,” not the rarified nature of Poussin or Lorraine.  As early as 1836, the painter Theodore Rousseau settled in the village in order to paint “pure” landscapes, meaning landscapes without narrative or metaphorical figures.  From the standpoint of the Academy, landscapes were then considered an inferior category of art.  It was no accident that landscape painting emerged as a popular subject in reaction to the encroachment of industry.  The Forest now belonged to the people, who explored the terrain of French kings, democratizing the natural.  This combination of feelings of nostalgia and an ownership of “nature,” there was a growing bourgeois audience for plain, down-to-earth pictures that would look well in a prosperous middle class interior.

The “School”


Theodore Rousseau, the first major artist to take up residence, was soon joined by Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, Narcisse Diaz, Constant Troyon, and Charles Daubigny.  Here, in the rustic landscape, the artists could indulge their longing for solitude and communion with nature.  At the end of Romanticism, the painters shared in the pantheistic admiration for Nature but observed their forest domain with the passion for observation that would become one of the leading tenets of Realism.  The name of the Barbizon School came from a small town in the forest and a popular inn, which was an informal gathering place of artists and their followers, such as a young Pierre Renoir. The landscape paintings without narration established important precedents for the Impressionists. In common with the Realists, the Barbizon artists were determined to forget previously learned academic formulas and replaced painterly rhetoric with a devotion to nature and heeded Millet’s advice to “keep in mind virgin impressions of nature.” For the painters, Barbizon was a new Arcadia, a place where art that belied the fact of industrialization could be made in this wooded place.  The area surrounding the village of Barbizon served as a latter day Roman Campagna.  The artists turned away from the melancholia of modern life and sought release in the rural past, seeing the great trees and the peaceful peasants as evidence of timeless values and their idealized vision of life in the past.

By the 1860s, the Barbizon School painters began to achieve success under the careful guidance of their dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, one of the pioneers of the new artist-dealer system.  Constant Tryon actually won the coveted Legion of Honor and many medals in the Salon.  Daubigny, in fact, became a member of the Salon jury and aided in the acceptance of the fledgling Impressionists to the 1869 Salon. But when Monet, who was singled out for the rancor of the jury was excluded, Daubigny resigned his position, along with Corot. Diaz came to the aid of Renoir and set up an account for the improvised artist, enabling him to buy brighter colors. Daubigny and his colleague from Le Harvre,Louis Eugène Boudin(Monet’s tutor), were the only landscape painters of their era to work directly from nature–plein air painting.  Although the Barbizon School artists painted en plein air, the works were completed in the studio.  Nevertheless, their paintings were routinely attacked as “rough drafts” because they juxtaposed spots of color, a technique used by Delacroix, rather than blending colors into a seamless fusion of teints.  By 1865, the members of the Barbizon School were referred to as “impressionists,” a term that had a long academic history.

Pure Landscape


Landscape—pure landscape—received academic sanction in the Salons only by 1817, but the theoretical principles of pure landscape painting had been laid by 1800 by Pierre-Henri Valenciennes.  Valenciennes claimed that landscape painting was a distinct branch of art and was not subordinate in the academic hierarchy.  He established two kinds of landscape painting: rural, representations of nature as it was; and paysage historique, nature as it ought to be. The rural, or picturesque, landscape would evoke an emotional response, while the historic landscape provided the opportunity for an intellectual appraisal. The work of Valenciennes was continued by his pupil, J. B. Deperthes, who wrote Théorie de paysage (1818) and claimed that landscape painting should be ranked second only to history painting.  Landscape, insisted Deperthes, had a greater social value because, unlike history painting, which was accessible only to the educated, paintings of the countryside could be appreciated by the masses. Like Valenciennes, Deperthes advised the study of landscape in the open air (en plein air) so that the artist could achieve a “general effect” of the view.  Dutch and Flemish masters and Claude, he said, should be studied for their compositions and use of light.

As the Nineteenth Century progressed and, with it, industrialization, theoreticians felt that only in rural settings could there be a relationship between the artist and nature. Under Romanticism, all of the advanced painters began to use landscape as a carrier of their emotions and as the bearer of artistic experiments. Despite the insistence of the Academy of the inferiority of the genre, there was a Prix de Rome landscape competition and students were encouraged to sketch from nature and to sketch from memory. By 1806, Holland was under French “protection,” and Dutch artists were sent to study in Rome and the Dutch tradition with its emphasis on genre and landscape, was incorporated into the French system.  It should be noted that the works most admired by the French landscape painters were the least admired by the Seventeenth century Dutch buyer.  Dutch landscape paintings and seascape paintings were mass-produced, painted quickly for the sake of volume.  They sold cheaply on the open market and were considered to be of lesser quality, compared to the carefully painted and minutely observed still lives.

Nevertheless, the low horizon lines of Dutch landscapes and the quick sketchy quality that gave the scenes so much vitality were greatly admired by the French artists, especially the Impressionists.   The Barbizon artist, Troyon found his preferred subject in Holland, where he saw the paintings of the famous painter of Dutch cows, Paulus Potter.   Following the Nineteenth century taste for animal painting, Troyon became, along with Rosa Bonheur, one of the most famous depicters of French animals.  During the Second Empire, the arch conservative Comte Nieuerkerke abolished the landscape competition in 1863, but it was reestablished in 1869 with the Prix Troyon, sponsored by the artist’s mother after his death.

Plein-air Techniques

By mid-century, when the painters began to move to the village of Barbizon, an appreciation for sketches in natural settings had grown up among collectors.   This appreciation for the first thoughts of the artist was an outgrowth of Romanticism and the idea of the artist as a “genius,” whose mere marks were to be savored and revered.  An entire vocabulary grew up around the stages of creation, from sketch to finished work of art.   The “impression” was the first take, the original sketch, which was greatly valued by collectors in the Romantic period as evidence of first thoughts of the artist and of the authenticity of his genius.  The fact that there were so many terms for this quick impression, effet, ébauche, and équisse, indicates the growing importance of the preliminary works.  In contrast to the quick impression, the étude was a study of light and shade, and Corot first to accept the étude as primary work of art.  The etude was a study of valeur or of the total surface quality.  Another term for this kind of preliminary work was the pochade, or study, meaning a self-contained work of art focusing on dark and light values.

Making preliminary sketches in situ, or on site, was followed by actually painting out of doors, en plein air. Being able to paint out of doors was due to the invention of the small portable easel and of portable paints in tubes, around 1840.  Until that period, paint was made by hand, with pigments ground by the artist who could “feel” green or blue and the different tactile qualities of each pigment.  But in 1836, a company, Blot, offered the first machine ground colors for sale.  The artists were now liberated from the studio and from the tyranny of layering transparent colors.   These new pigments were opaque colors, in contrast to the transparent colors and traditional glazes, pioneered by the Flemish artists of the Renaissance.  The artists employed poppy seed oil, which created a smooth, buttery surface, and, rather like cake frosting, retained the marks of the brush.  The artists now used a kind of paint that was slow drying, creating a wet-on-wet technique.  They loaded their brushes or used the palette knife to slather the creamy paint, which had been stiffened with additives, beef and mutton tallow, onto the canvas.

The “ground” of the mid-century canvas would have been dark.  The combination of the use of tar based bitumen, for the ground of  “brown sauce,” led to darkening and cracking over time; and the additives to the paint, led to yellowing over time.  We cannot know what Courbet’s original works looked like, but his use of thick paint and the palette knife, intensified his identification with the laborer and the sensuous “realism” of his surface.   Courbet’s impasto indicated a lack of elevated moral tone and a lack of rational picture conventions, reducing his paintings to a raw imitation of nature.  In other words, his paintings were too materialistic, too marked as paintings, as nature. For “art” to be “art,” the object had to rise above nature, an elevation signaled by the slick or “licked” finish.    The sheer physicality of the portable and convenient paint would have prevented the appropriate fini, or “finish,” referring to the quality of surface.  The acceptable fini was smooth as enamel, as seen in the highly crafted paintings of Ingres.  But the new kind of paint ushered in a new kind of finish.

The otherwise inoffensive paintings of the Barbizon School were attacked by the critics on many grounds, not the least of which was the manner of applying paint.  Delacroix would later be admired by a new generation of artists, who would call themselves, “divisionists,” because he divided his colors and applied them separately.  Delacroix would lay red and green next to each other to intensify the colors and make them visually vibrate.   The idea of laying down paint in touches or as a tache, a patch, or a local tone that was not blended was continued by the Barbizon artists.  To work with tones and divided colors was to eschew traditional chiaroscuro or the strong contrast between lights and darks. Chiaroscuro was an Academic aesthetic ideal, which carried an ideological meaning of following traditional ways.  This academic chiaroscuro was a studio chiaroscuro artificially constructed by the cool north light, created under controlled conditions, which allowed an ideal of demi-teints or half-tones.  To reject studio chiaroscuro for the light and colors of nature in situ was to reject high ideals of painting and the established conventions of academic art.

Impact of the Barbizon School

The Barbizon School was most important as a precursor to the Impressionists and as a part of a growing number of “outsider” artists.  The “outsiders” were either half-trained, like Courbet, or chose to position themselves apart from the mainstream.  They explored new subject matter and new ways of painting.  Some were in search for a “truth” or “sincerity,” others were seeking a way to be “modern.”  Although Deperthes had urged for artists to look for the “picturesque,” fifty years later, such charm and quaintness was out of date.  The cloud studies of John Constable were better role models than his paintings of village life.   The cloud studies of Eugène Delacroix were more interesting than his dramatic content.  “Studies” were connected to the idea of scientific study of nature, required a quick and objective eye, that looked without hierarchy. The emotional landscapes of the Romantic artists were set aside for the unassuming quick sketches of pieces of nature.  The Barbizon School found “humble” subjects in ordinary landscapes, rendered without uplifting narration or romantic symbolism.   The nostalgia of the past and the tourism of the guidebooks were ignored in favor of recording a nature, which was as old as France itself, using a new way of painting.

The impact of the Barbizon School was by no means confined to Paris.  Tachistes referred to artists who favored the new “patch” style of painting.  The Macchiaioli, or the Italian “spot painters,” met at the Café Michelangelo, where Edgar Degas and James Tissot would join them. The Macchiaioli formed as a group as early as 1859, and the members of the group admired Corot, Troyon, Decamps, and the Barbizon School.  The Italians were opposed to the Italian establishment, which, of course, followed the precepts of the Academy. Insisting on the need to be contemporary and unpretentious, they referred to the classical tradition with coglionèlla or derision. Led by Telemaco Signorini and Diego Martelli and the journalist and theorist, Giovanni Fattori, the Italian painters simplified the distribution of light and shade into contrasting spots, which they referred to as macchie.  The Italian artists lived in a nation that was locked in the past, but France was changing from year to year and the idea of “nature” changed as well, from a forest to suburban pleasure grounds.  It would take twenty years for the lessons of Courbet, Manet, the Italian artists, and the Barbizon School to come to fruition in the Impressionists, who made their debut in 1874, clearly showing the intersection between modernity and nature.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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