Barbizon Painting describes work produced by a colony of artists in and around Barbizon, a village some thirty-five miles to the southeast of Paris. The central figures within the colony were Théodore Rousseau; Jean-François Millet; Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Pena, all of whom lived in Barbizon; and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Charles-François Daubigny, who visited the village periodically. These artists, often described as the “Barbizon School,” revolutionized landscape and peasant genre painting between 1830 and 1878, emphasizing the importance of plein-air work and investing their renderings of nature with powerful new meanings and resonances. They shifted away from historical and mythological subject matter to intense naturalistic imaging, and from an earlier focus on the representation of Italy to a new nationalistic interest in the representation of their native land of France. Their work has often been seen as anticipating the Impressionists, although there are also important differences between the two movements. The historiography around Barbizon painting is extensive. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the emergence of a significant literature, particularly of empirically detailed biographies in France and Great Britain, at a time when the movement enjoyed its greatest international fame. With the rise of Impressionism after World War I, Barbizon painting was overlooked during the mid-20th century, but the 1960s and 1970s saw a growing interest, especially in the wake of Robert Herbert’s 1962 exhibition, Barbizon Revisited (see Herbert 1962, cited under Exhibition Catalogues). In the 1980s, the movement began to be examined with a new theoretical sophistication and with an increasing awareness of the contextual importance of cultural markets and patronage, a development that has continued in the early 21st century. Since 2000, there has also been a growing discourse relating Barbizon painting to contemporary ecological concerns. French and American exhibition catalogues have also focused with a new intensity on the group’s representations of various motifs of the Forest of Fontainebleau. There remain notable lacunae in the literature. There is no catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Millet, nor have there been publications of the correspondence of Corot or Rousseau. In comparison to Impressionism, there has been little feminist discourse, perhaps because the artists in the group were predominantly male; the exception to this is the significant body of writing around the life and work of Rosa Bonheur. Much of the literature around Barbizon painting has been monographic in nature and, accordingly, this article, along with general thematic sections, contains sections on individual artists.
There have been several efforts to write the history of Barbizon painting, originating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the term “Barbizon School” first seems to have been used by the French critic Hector de Callias in 1866, Thomson 1890 gave general currency to the term, and the idea of the Barbizon artists as a distinctive group. Mollett 1890, published shortly before Croal Thomson’s book, also provided a detailed history of the group, focusing on six painters, each of whom were treated with relatively equal weight. Tomson 1903 concentrated on the career of Millet but also discussed the work of Dupré, Diaz, and Rousseau. In these early histories, therefore, the understanding of those artists included within the so-called school was fluid. Gassies 1907 is an in-depth and first-hand account that helped to shape the idea of Barbizon as a close-knit colony of painters. Dorbec 1925 is an important analysis by a noted French art historian that provides a counterpoint to the earlier prevalence of Anglo-Saxon voices in the literature. In the following decades, there were few overviews. Forges 1971 is a useful account of the evolution of the colony of artists in Barbizon. Bouret 1973 provides an extensively illustrated overview, although it is more of a coffee-table book than a scholarly volume. Miquel 1975 contains a wide range of interesting information but is often lacking in supportive footnotes and bibliography. Adams 1994 is a thoughtful overview of the movement that also discusses connections with Impressionism. Burmester, et al. 1999 is an important essay collection, arising from a symposium on Barbizon painting held at the Haus der Kunst in Munich in March 1996. This volume includes contributions by an international range of French, American, British, and German scholars. It provides the best introduction to the variety of discourse around Barbizon work. In recent years, there have been a number of valuable Exhibition Catalogues, but there has been no new overview of the movement. Amory 2007 is a concise online introduction.
Adams, Steven. The Barbizon School and the Origins of Impressionism. London: Phaidon, 1994.
The best general introduction to Barbizon painting. Adams effectively relates the art to the wider sociohistorical context, popular culture, and major political moments such as the 1848 Revolution. The author also explores the impact on the Impressionists. Useful for undergraduate courses.
Amory, Dita. “The Barbizon School: French Painters of Nature.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007.
The author provides a summary of the aims and achievements of the Barbizon painters. A helpful introduction for the general reader.
Bouret, Jean. The Barbizon School and 19th Century French Landscape Painting. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.
Extensively illustrated overview of Barbizon painting that covers a wide range of work although the text is generally lacking in in-depth analysis. The author situates Barbizon art within the context of earlier English and Dutch landscape painting and also examines the international range of painters at Barbizon.
Burmester, Andreas, Christoph Heilmann, and Michael Zimmermann, ed. Barbizon: Malerei der Natur, Natur der Malerei. Papers delivered at a symposium on Barbizon painting held at the Haus der Kunst in Munich in March 1996. Munich: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1999.
An important collection by an international range of respected scholars. A broad range of methodologies from sophisticated conceptual analysis to detailed technical examinations. Essay sections explore changing attitudes to nature, technique, a new landscape vision, and mythologies around Barbizon painting. Essays in English, French, or German; abstracts in English.
Dorbec, Prosper. L’Art du paysage en France: Essai sur son évolution de la fin du XVIIIe siècle à la fin du second Empire. Paris: H. Laurens, 1925.
An important early text that provides the perspective of a noted French art historian. Dorbec is especially useful in analyzing the roots of Barbizon painting in 18th-century French art as well as early 19th-century English painting, particularly that of Constable.
Forges, Marie-Thérèse de. Barbizon et L’École de Barbizon. Paris: Éditions du Temps, 1971.
Detailed overview of the evolution of the colony of Barbizon artists, as well as the expansion of the village itself in the 19th century from a tiny rural village into a tourist destination.
Gassies, Jean-Baptiste-Georges. Le Vieux Barbizon: Souvenirs de jeunesse d’un Paysagiste, 1852–1875. Paris: Librarie Hachette, 1907.
The detailed, nostalgic memories of a painter who lived and worked in Barbizon for nearly twenty-five years. Gassies focuses on the Auberge Ganne as a site for male camaraderie. He stresses the value of the “old” ways of life in the village before the expanded tourism of the late 19th century.
Miquel, Pierre. Le Paysage français au XIXe siècle, 1824–1874: L’École de la Nature. Vols. 1–3. Maurs-la-Jolie, France: Éditions de la Martinelle, 1975.
The author attempts a comprehensive survey of French landscape painting. Volumes 2 and 3 are most helpful and contain detailed biographies of many Barbizon painters, some of whom are little known. Lots of useful documentary references but many sources are not cited. Many illustrated paintings were from Miquel’s own collection.
Mollett, John William. The Painters of Barbizon. 2 vols. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1890.
Authored by an art historian who also produced biographies of Rembrandt and Watteau. Includes narratives on six Barbizon painters: Millet, Rousseau, Diaz, Corot, Daubigny, and Dupré. The two volumes are illustrated by etchings and include early bibliographies of writings on the artists’ careers, as well as lists of their principal paintings. Volume 1, Millet, Rousseau, Diaz. Volume 2, Corot, Daubigny, Dupré.
Thomson, David Croal. The Barbizon School of Painters: Corot, Rousseau, Diaz, Millet, Daubigny, etc. New York: Scribner and Welford, 1890.
Authored by a noted Scottish writer and art dealer in Barbizon painting who had a vested commercial interest in elevating the status, and prices, of these artists. The author focused on “five great artists,” Corot, Rousseau, Diaz, Millet, and Daubigny; he also examined the work of Troyon, Jacque, and Dupré but far more summarily.
Tomson, Arthur. Jean-François Millet and the Barbizon School. London: George Bell, 1903.
Written by an English artist and member of the New English Art Club, this overview focuses on the career of Millet and also includes shorter biographies of Dupré, Diaz, and Rousseau. The author references the impact of Barbizon painting on artists including Monticelli, Bastien-Lepage, and George Clausen.
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