Who were the Barbizon painters? Read on to learn the history of the Barbizon Painters and their artistic influence.
Auberge Ganne in Barbizon was homebase to the artists exploring the wonders of Fontainebleau Forest.
Tucked away in the picturesque French countryside, the sleepy and charming village of Barbizon became the site of a major revolution in the 1830s that would change the course of the history of art! This revolution began not with a bang, but with a brush. It was not spurred by a polarizing or salacious subject matter, but rather with quiet and contemplative meditations on landscape painting. The ripples of this approach were boundless and the world of art as we know it today remains irrevocably indebted to the subtle genius of a handful of creative minds that came together in a tranquil setting to find radical artistic inspiration in nature.
Led by painters including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet, the Barbizon artists were interested in capturing their surroundings in a naturalistic manner, painting directly from nature and putting the real, unedited forms and colors that appeared before them on canvas. They turned away from the strictures of the Academy and marched toward the untamed Forest of Fontainebleau, searching for true, unmanicured beauty in the richly diverse flora and fauna cultivated in the wooded marshes of the countryside. They found respite and community as they boarded at the newly established inn Auberge Ganne in Barbizon, one of the small hamlets that ringed the forest. Soon it became a sort of Mecca for emerging young artists interested in the en plein air painting style.
What movement were the Barbizon Painters part of?
Many art historians consider the Barbizon painters the precursor to the Impressionist movement. The formation of the Barbizon painters group was precipitated by changes at the French academy. In early nineteenth-century France, landscape painting was not a privileged genre, and instead, artists were encouraged to emulate the Renaissance and classical antiquity. When artists did render landscapes, they often painted idealized or imagined scenes inspired by poetry and mythology. When the French Academy introduced a prize for historical landscape painting in 1816, the genre was reinvigorated with excitement and painters began to closely study the nuances of rendering the natural world. While they initially looked to Dutch and Flemish landscapes for inspiration, they soon turned away from gallery walls and decided to step out into nature to study the landscape firsthand. The Forest of Fontainebleau was an ideal playground for these ambitious young artists.
Le Gué aux Cinq Vaches by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot | M.S. Rau
Reaching nearly 42,000 acres, the forest consists of dense woods and marshes, vast meadows, imposing rock formations and breathtaking vistas. Cold winters give way to warm summers in the region, cultivating a diverse plethora of wildlife and plant specimens. Bands of young painters would embark on excursions through the forest, painting and sketching the bountiful landscape scenes. The groups would reconvene at the Auberge Ganne in Barbizon in the evenings, learning from each other and exchanging techniques and philosophical musings.
Though they came from diverse training backgrounds and ranged from young artists to elder statesmen, the Barbizon painters shared a collective passion for capturing the beauty of the landscape and understanding the transcendent and sublime powers of nature. Their desire to paint landscapes with the same attention to detail and fervor as other genres of painting paved the way for the future Impressionists to not only capture the subject matters that interested them but to unveil the truth of the world they bore witness to through paint.
Characteristics of Barbizon art
The painters of the Barbizon school laid the groundwork for French Impressionist Artists. They sought to capture the unbridled truth of nature by rendering hyper-real, unedited landscape views. Artists worked en plain air, making for more rapid and painterly canvases that were created in real-time. Artists shifted their techniques to most accurately capture these scenes, focusing on the tonal qualities of color and light and utilizing loose brushwork and soft forms to reinforce the essence of the natural world. These loose forms and meditations on the interplay of color and light were certainly key shifts that influenced the future Impressionist painters. In addition, the focus on unidealized and real subjects influenced the development of Social Realism in art.
Who were the Barbizon painters?
Some of the most famous painters of the Barbizon School include Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet.
Camille Corot is often regarded as the most influential French landscape painter of the nineteenth century and the scenic vistas of the forest of Fontainebleau are featured in several of the artist’s famed early works.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Forest of Fontainebleau, 1834 | National Gallery of Art
Fellow Barbizon painter Paul Désiré Trouillebert’s composition Dance of the Nymphs closely resembles an important painting by the Barbizon painter Camille Corot, which is in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Corot’s version of this Barbizon painting, which was painted in 1850, demonstrates an important shift in art history. Painters no longer found it necessary to justify their interest in nature by including larger narratives in their landscape. Here, classical elements are still included, but the playfulness of the dancing nymphs is secondary to the overall grandeur of the natural world. Renowned for his unique individuality that toed the line between the traditional and modern, Corot and his landscapes helped pave the way for an entire generation of Impressionists who followed him.
Dance of the Nymphs by Paul Désiré Trouillebert | M.S. Rau
Théodore Rousseau was perhaps the most fervent naturalist of the Barbizon bunch, dedicating more time to the great outdoors than any of his peers. Rather than only enjoying the warm summer months, Rousseau braved the cold too, desiring to see the changes across seasons. Prior to finding new purpose in the Barbizon Forest, Rousseau was consistently snubbed by the Salon — becoming known as “le grand refusé.”
Upon discovering the sublime beauty of the forest and finding kinship with fellow Barbizon painters, Rousseau soon became a leader of the movement, no longer an outcast but rather a captain of change. Critics noted Rousseau’s technical innovations with color, discussing his revolutionary use of green and yellow pigments and the experimental way he applied paint.
Mont Blanc Seen from La Faucille, Storm Effect, begun 1834, Théodore Rousseau, oil on canvas.
While Rousseau was Barbizon’s leader, Jean-François Millet
was perhaps the group’s most recognizable member. Millet moved to Fontainebleau with his family to escape an epidemic of cholera. He and his wife raised their nine children small cottage bordering the forest. Millet dedicated his oeuvre to painting scenes from nature and local peasant figures and
farm laborers with exceptional realism and a deep sense of dignity. Perhaps his most famous composition, Millet’s The Gleaners
not only showcases his preoccupation with nature but also illustrates how the Barbizon school’s quest for realism gave way to the movement toward Social Realism Art.
Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1957 | Musée d'Orsay
Barbizon painter influence
The Barbizon painters irrevocably influenced the course of French art in the 19th century, and further, the course of the history of art. Several younger French artists were inclined to visit Fontainebleau Forest, inspired by the groundbreaking compositions of their elder peers. Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and others admired the Barbizon’s emphasis on realism and observed how the practice of painting scenes outdoors impacted the creative output of their predecessors. The influence of the Barbizon painter’s nuanced attempts to render the fleeting and awe-inspiring views of nature can be seen in the works of Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and even Vincent Van Gogh, who deeply admired Millet especially, once writing in a letter to his brother Theo, “To me, Millet is that essential modern painter who opened the horizon to many.”
Three Cows Grazing by Claude Monet | M.S. Rau
The Barbizon painters paved the way for the future of the history of art and their work remains an important and striking reminder of the beauty of the natural world. Compositions by painters of the Barbizon School would make a wonderful acquisition for anyone who is looking to start collecting fine art
or enjoys the work of French Impressionist artists
. Today, the Barbizon painter’s works remind viewers to look up from their screens, open a window or take a jaunt outside and become re-enchanted with the wondrous beauty of nature. Our collection of fine art landscape paintings is beautifully represented by famous artists from the Barbizon School.