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Théodore Rousseau Photo

Théodore Rousseau

French Painter

Movements and Styles: Barbizon School, Naturalism, Romanticism

Born: April 15, 1812 - Paris, France

Died: December 22, 1867 - Barbizon, France

Théodore Rousseau Timeline

Important Art by Théodore Rousseau

The below artworks are the most important by Théodore Rousseau - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

The Descent of Cows from the High Plateaus of the Jura (1836)

The Descent of Cows from the High Plateaus of the Jura (1836)

Artwork description & Analysis: The Descent of Cows from the High Plateaus of the Jura was one of Rousseau's most beautiful works. Yet, with chemical degradation, compounded by the passing of time, the colors in this painting, which was predominantly green, soon darkened. A cowherd leading a group of cattle down the rocky cliffs in the foreground and a thicket of trees reaching up to as well as obscuring most of the sky in the background are the components that are evident in this work even now.

The artist here offers a completely different take on landscape painting wherein the composition is dramatically compressed and has a vertical orientation as opposed to the regular horizontal layout of the western landscape tradition. Although, art historian Albert Boime compares this work with Jacques-Louis David's painting Napoléon Bonaparte crossing the Alps at the Saint-Bernard Pass with similarly upright composition, an essential difference is that nature in Rousseau's painting is not treated as a mere background. This work is also boldly devoid of mythological or biblical narrative of Neo-Classicism as well as the fantasy or imaginative mode of Romanticism and portrays nature for its own sake. No wonder then, that the painter was seen as a rebel of the genre and this work was rejected from the Salon of 1836.

His explicit observation of nature paired with a technique of loose brushwork may have led the Salon jury to judge the work as unfinished, but it was this uniqueness that made him a leader in the field of landscape painting.

Rousseau's innovative expression through this landscape painting was noticed and appreciated by a senior contemporary Romantic painter Ary Scheffer, who displayed it in his studio. Ironically then, the work that was refused by the Salon was reinstated within the lineage of nineteenth-century landscape. Also, the work that was criticized as lacking 'finish' became a major aesthetic precept to the next generation of artists, the Impressionists, who would revolutionize landscape painting.

Oil on canvas - Mesdag Museum, The Hague

The Avenue of Chestnuts (1837-1841)

The Avenue of Chestnuts (1837-1841)

Artwork description & Analysis: An alley of ancient trees that are symmetrically arranged draws the viewer to the illusion of great depth. Sharp contrasts created by the dark greens give way to lighter tones of gold and yellow below; lead the eye further into the dense grove of the landscape. This work instills a sense of total immersion into the scene itself as if it were a theatrical backdrop. Rounded edges of the top portion enclosing twisted branches intertwining in a canopy above heighten this stage-like effect.

Further, it is reminiscent of an architectonic composition as the thicket of foliage leaves no room for the sky above and is aptly likened by the critic Théophile Thoré to the high vaults of a Gothic cathedral. The Avenue of Chestnuts makes clear the abiding respect and affection for nature felt by Rousseau. He celebrates nature's glory by portraying the power and vigor of natural shapes and forms that renders the human form along the path barely visible, much like the viewer who is overwhelmed by the majesty of the trees.

Rousseau began painting this work in 1837 in the park of Château du Souliers in the Vendee; which was owned by his friend Charles Le Roux's family. After toiling over the painting for many years, he finally submitted it to the Salon of 1841. The jury's rejection of the painting came as a rude shock to the artist, as its sale to the State had been organized the previous year by none other than the Romantic master Eugène Delacroix and the novelist George Sand, who were influential in the political and artistic circles. Such an insult made Rousseau declare that he would no longer submit work to the Salon, a break that would carry on until after the Revolution of 1848.

Yet he remained entwined in the French art world; for example, in a review of the Salon of 1845 by Thoré, the critic provides an in-depth analysis of this work and acclaims Rousseau's devotion to nature as he writes "The opening to the sky at the end of the mysterious alley is like a radiant altar at the rear of a gloomy monument. [...] Nature is the voluptuous mother who provokes her lover's passion, and art is the fruit of this union." One aspect that remained as a continual inspiration, and even progressed further throughout his career, was Rousseau's zeal for nature. It is illustrated here in a laudatory manner with the statuesque forms of the chestnut trees.

Oil on canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris

Edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau: Sunset (1848-49)

Edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau: Sunset (1848-49)

Artwork description & Analysis: This forest near the village of Barbizon had captivated the artist's heart long before the time of this painting. Shimmering rays of the golden sun set upon tree branches and the tufts of hair of a group of cows, drinking in peace from a still and quiet pond. It is as if Rousseau wanted to capture and amplify the glow of this scene within the natural frame of curvaceous oak tree branches. Using this compositional device that recalls a vignette, the artist provides a focal point for the viewer's gaze. Art historian Greg H. Thomas, however, describes the somewhat unsettling effects of the painting, as he writes, "the viewer's view with trees which [threatens] to obscure the fragile human axis cut through them." Although the forest was managed by the Royal Forest Administration, Rousseau's canvas does not acknowledge human intervention in protecting nature. On the contrary, he seems to argue that human existence is overpowered by forces of nature and any effort to control it is in vain. Perhaps for this reason, the figure of a shepherd at the center of the picture plane seems to disappear into the landscape entirely. By the same token then, though the setting sun is warm and inviting, an air permeating melancholy can also be felt.

After nearly a decade of rejection from the official art establishment, Rousseau was honored with a State Commission for the Musée du Luxembourg, delivered personally in 1848 by the Minister of the Interior and the Director of the Louvre. It resulted in this painting. Displayed first at the Salon of 1850-51 and then again at the Exposition Universelle of 1855, the painting finally bestowed upon Rousseau his long-awaited recognition and eventual ascent within the French art world. Though he would continue to extend the boundaries of landscape painting till the end of his life, his acceptance by Parisian art institutions ensured his visibility for and influence on the younger generation of Impressionists who would soon follow.

An Avenue of Trees, Forest of l'Isle-Adam (1846-49)

An Avenue of Trees, Forest of l'Isle-Adam (1846-49)

Artwork description & Analysis: Having successfully ascended to the upper echelons of the art world, Rousseau returned to the vertical format of landscape with An Avenue of Trees, Forest of l'Isle-Adam. Earlier he was ridiculed and his work of 1836, Descent of Cows rejected for such a layout. This work was initially shown at the Salon with a different title: The Green Avenue or Avenue des Bonshommes.

Described by Alfred Sensier as a 'Druidic Temple', the painting is exemplary of Rousseau's ability to express communion with nature like the beliefs of ancient Druids. The artist was known for his habit of painting directly from nature to which he would later add details and complete in his studio. This painting is an exception to his regular practice in that he worked on this painting entirely outdoors amidst trees and foliage. Although, he began painting in the spring of 1846 and continued to do so throughout that season while staying at l'Isle-Adam with fellow painter Jules Dupré, it remained unfinished until he returned to complete it in the following two years.

It is amazing to note that despite the prolonged periods of rework he has managed to capture a seemingly photographic moment of the cows grazing under the watchful eye of the shepherdess. The transition of shadow to light creates a vignette-like effect of early photography. Through this work Rousseau may have felt the need to prove his painterly capabilities over and above that of photography, which was emerging popular at this time. He even chose the most difficult time of the day- the high noon- to create a scene that would be impossible to photograph.

Exhibited at the Salon of 1849, the painting successfully demonstrates his mastery of rendering the diffusion of light as well as his penchant for depicting the harmonious coexistence of nature and humankind that is represented here as a figure seated unobtrusively and tranquilly. Rousseau's desire to live in serene, natural ambience materialized when he moved permanently to the village of Barbizon (bordering the Forest of Fontainebleau) in 1848. Theodore Rousseau's ideological quest or flight-into-nature aligns him with the views of philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writing had a profound influence on many a Romantic artist.

Oil on canvas - Musee d'Orsay, Paris

The Village of Becquigny (c. 1857-67)

The Village of Becquigny (c. 1857-67)

Artwork description & Analysis: Beneath a sapphire sky close to the horizon line, a traveler camouflaged within the shadow of a tree is seen between rows of thatch-roofed huts of this village, which seems to resonate with the echo of his loneliness. This painting is related to a travel that Rousseau took through Picardy in 1857 and was astounded when he saw this peaceful rural retreat. His approach here comes close to the works that project an interest in anthropological exoticism. He is nevertheless, conscious of avoiding over emphasis on human dwellings, so a distant view of the cottages makes them appear as hilly extensions of the uneven soils of the foreground. Compositionally, the cottages are arranged to connect the earth and sky and the trees are intelligently placed to break the monotony of a horizontal layout. Hence, Rousseau's Village of Becquigny is a veritable encyclopedia of his talents as a mature landscape painter.

Often likened to Meindert Hobbema's Avenue at Middelharnis (1689), Rousseau's painting is exemplary of his ability to combine tradition and innovation. Due to his urge for novelty he repainted the whole sky a startlingly brilliant blue, inspired by the Japanese prints he recently came across, on the night before its exhibition at the Salon of 1864. When critics responded negatively to what they called an 'excess of invention', Rousseau returned the sky to its original, more harmonious state.

Though it was purchased by a private collector in 1862, Rousseau was never satisfied with it, making adjustments to the painting until his death. When advised by his friend and biographer, Alfred Sensier not to continue toiling with the canvas long after his return from Becquigny, he wrote in a letter, "Do not fear for my Village; if I put the finishing touches on it in Paris, its virginal impressions of nature will not be any less present to me; they date from long ago and cannot fade away." Though Rousseau was dedicated to studying nature, he could not completely espouse the principle of plein air painting as he prioritized perfection. He expressed this view with one of his students thus: "Your trees must cling to the ground, your branches must come forward or plunge into the canvas; the viewer must think he could walk around your tree."

Oil on mahogany panel - The Frick Collection, New York

The Forest in Winter at Sunset (1846-67)

The Forest in Winter at Sunset (1846-67)

Artwork description & Analysis: From the dark depths of the earth rises a stormy web of trees and their tangled branches ensnaring everything within the canvas. Subtle modulations of pale and dry winter skies are punctuated by streaks of orange, red, icy blue and gray. Rousseau paints two tiny human forms in the center only to reiterate the insignificance, even hopelessness of human existence in the face of this enormous forest and its daunting winter.

Rousseau began painting The Forest in Winter at Sunset in December 1846, when he was relatively young. Yet in 1867 it was kept in his studio for the posthumous sale of his works and possessions, which may suggest that the work was still to be finished. Technical analysis and correspondence support this argument as they indicate that Rousseau returned to painting it time and again. The gnarled oak trees were a marker of the forest's ancient past for him and consequently the painting has an enigmatic, almost primordial air. Like many of his fellow Barbizon School painters, Rousseau's insistence on representing the landscape without any reference to mythological or historical narrative did not deter him from creating paintings that were rich with emotion and meaning. Thought-provoking, contemplative, and laden with sublime beauty, A Forest in Winter at Sunset is a summation of the painter's long and varied career.

Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York



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Related Art and Artists

The Hay Wain (1821)

The Hay Wain (1821)

Movement: Romanticism

Artist: John Constable

Artwork description & Analysis: This rural landscape depicts a hay wain, a kind of cart, drawn by three horses crossing a river. On the left bank, a cottage, known as Willy Lott's Cottage for the tenant farmer who lived there, stands behind Flatford Mill, which was owned by Constable's father. Constable knew this area of the Suffolk countryside well and said, "I should paint my own places best, painting is but another word for feeling." He made countless plein air sketches in which he engaged in near scientific observations of the weather and the effects of light.

In Constable's landscape, man does not stand back and observe nature but is instead intimately a part of nature, just as the trees and birds are. The figuring driving the cart is not out of scale with his environment. Constable depicted the oneness with nature that so many of the Romantic poets declared.

Constable found little acclaim in his home country of England because of his refusal to follow a traditional academic path and his insistence on pursuing the lowliest of genres: landscape painting. The French Romantics, however, took him up enthusiastically after seeing this work in the 1824 Paris Salon. His ability to capture the way fleeting atmosphere determines how we see the landscape inspired such artists as Eugène Delacroix. While The Hay Wain may not have been well-received by his countrymen at the time, in 2005 it was the voted second most popular painting in England.

Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, London, England

The Bathers (1853)

The Bathers (1853)

Artist: Gustave Courbet

Artwork description & Analysis: This is one of the best examples of Courbet's non-classical treatment of nudes. In this eight foot tall painting two women are partially naked without any mythological justification or rhetoric, rendered naturally and not idealized. The painting was poorly received, with Delacroix seeing no excuse for these "naked and fat bourgeoisie.. buttocks, and meaningless gestures." But rather than being negative, the attention was good publicity, and Courbet sold the work in spite of the criticisms.

Oil on canvas - Musee Fabre, Montpellier

The Gleaners (1857)

The Gleaners (1857)

Artist: Jean-François Millet

Artwork description & Analysis: Three peasant women gather grains from what's left at the end of a harvest day as the evening shadows gather around them. In the background, a horse-drawn cart full of wheat, haystacks, sheaves of wheat, a man on horseback, a village, and a large crowd of laborers depict the abundance of the harvest.

In Millet's day French farmers followed the Biblical injunction to leave gleanings (or left-over scraps of the grain harvest) in the fields so that poor women and children could live on them. Millet's Gleaners occupy the extreme foreground of the canvas. The grinding poverty of the peasant women, evident in their rough, simple garments, and the back-breaking work of collecting individual grains appear as a contemporaneous depiction of the Biblical directive. Shown at the 1857 Salon, the painting was criticized for its depiction of rural poverty. One reviewer said, "These are homely scarecrows set up in a field: M. Millet's ugliness and vulgarity have no relief."

The painting is dominated by the sculptural figures of the three women. Arms extending toward the ground, the emphasized lines of their shoulders and backs convey the strain of the arduous work. Each woman is depicted engaged in a specific task; one searches for stray grain on the ground, one collects the grains and the third ties them all together. Their faces are hidden, suggesting a sort of homogeneous anonymity rather than individuality. As with The Sower, that anonymity allows them to represent all of the poverty-stricken peasants of France, rather than simply these women. The contrast between the shadows lengthening around the women and the illuminated background where the harvesters are celebrating conveys the distinction between poverty and plenty. The distant steward on horseback, supervising the harvest, represents social order and the privilege of distance from hard labor. The leavings of grain, scattered on the ground, glisten like jewels against the drab color of the ground, yet the viewer cannot help but realize how meager they really are, and how much effort the women must make to simply live. Even so, despite their straightened circumstances, Millet bestows a certain dignity upon them. They display a measure of quiet fortitude amidst the monotony of their efforts, and despite the simplicity of their garb, their figures are robust, accustomed to the rigors of their working life.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

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