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  • gerard van weyenbergh

Barbizon, a basic description

A small village on the edge of the Fontainebleau forest in Île-de-France, Barbizon became a den of artists wishing to escape the industrialization of the capital in the 1830s.

Théodore Rousseau, Charles-François Daubigny, Narcisse Díaz de la Peña form a pictorial school, the first devoted in France to the study of the pure landscape, following the example of the British school. Barbizon artists are naturalists: their concern is to faithfully reproduce nature, from an observation of reality, which does not prevent their landscape from reaching a high degree of dramaturgy or sublimation. They are often seen as the heralds of Impressionism.

History of movement

Théodore Rousseau was the first painter to settle in 1830 in the village of Barbizon. He desired to be in the middle of nature, to offer a sincere interpretation that would stand out from the romantic tradition still in fashion. Several painters joined him, including Charles-François Daubigny, Constant Troyon, Narcisse Díaz de la Peña, Jules Dupré, Jean-François Millet, attracted by the fear of cholera that was rampant in Paris.

One of the sources of inspiration for these artists is English landscaping, discovered during John Constable's participation in the Salon of 1824. The hay cart he presents is a revelation for many artists. The subject is rural, magnifying the beauty of nature but without mythological, historical or allegorical pretext. Like Constable, they wish to privilege the authentic observation of nature and to free themselves from the academic laws which advocate idealization at the expense of truth. The study of the trees that populate the forest is one of their favorite subjects.

The works of these landscape artists are contemporary with the birth of photography. But Barbizon painters suffered less criticism than photographers because their works were recognized as interpretations and not servile copies of nature. Indeed, nature is often interpreted in a sentimental, melancholic, or dramatic way in their works.

Many art historians dispute the notion of Barbizon school, preferring to evoke the fortuitous meeting of painters in search of realism in the forest of Fontainebleau. This group was indeed made of very different personalities, whose research was not only landscape and whose temperaments had more or less inclination for classicism or romanticism. For example, Jean-François Millet, whose subjects deal more with life in the countryside and peasant traditions.

Barbizon artists have profoundly renewed the tradition of landscape painting in the French school of the XIXth century. They sort of gave it its letters of nobility. By working from nature, they also paved the way for the Impressionists and the outdoor school.

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