Théodore Rousseau

French Painter

Born: April 15, 1812
Paris, France
Died: December 22, 1867
Barbizon, France
Silence is golden. When I am at my observation post at Belle-Croix, I dare not move, for silence enables me to penetrate to the heart of discoveries. Then the forest families begin to stir. It was silence that enabled me, standing as still as a tree-trunk, to watch the stag cleaning himself... The man who lives in silence becomes the center of the world.

Summary of Théodore Rousseau

Théodore Rousseau was known for his exceptional and unconventional nature based paintings. He was highly regarded as a pioneer and a leader of the Barbizon School of landscape art. Having realized his love for nature and his desire for expressing it through landscape paintings early in life, Rousseau was one of the earliest artists to have ventured directly in the outdoors to observe and analyze natural forms. He had thus made a decision on the choice of his subject that led him to ultimately pioneer and lead the Barbizon School. Painting landscape for its own sake, Rousseau elevated its status from that of a mere background support to becoming an independent entity. Even as all of his works were products of direct empirical studies from nature, he was able to create within them an extraordinary poignancy that was unique - which was much like his signature.


Progression of Art


The Descent of Cows from the High Plateaus of the Jura

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 Neoclassicism 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 19th-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

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

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

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 - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

c. 1857-67

The Village of Becquigny

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

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 - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Biography of Théodore Rousseau


Born into a bourgeois Parisian family, Étienne Pierre Théodore Rousseau began exploring his love of landscape painting as early as age fourteen. His father, a tailor, originally positioned him to study business, but a journey to the Jura region of France changed his destiny. Known for its staggering limestone cliffs and lush forests, this location inspired in the young Rousseau a fervent urge to paint landscapes that would hold sway over him until the end of his life. On this transformative voyage he was fortunate enough to meet a fellow passenger who happened to be a sculptor named Lemaire. Rousseau learned from him the ways in which artists perceive nature and objects around them. Upon his return, he was encouraged by his mother's cousin, the landscape painter Alexandre Pau de Saint-Martin, to try his hand at painting. It was in Saint-Martin's studio that he first observed the art of painting in nature while he was accompanying his uncle to the Forest of Compiègne. The young Rousseau showed such immediate artistic promise that his parents soon decided to support his ambitions by sending him to the studio of Joseph Rémond in 1826.

Early Training

His initial learning came from teachers of Neoclassical tradition. Remond was a widely acclaimed historical landscape painter who won the Prix de Rome in 1821, which was the most coveted official award for painters at the time. Yet, Rousseau was unsatisfied with his apprenticeship there. He soon moved to the studio of Guillaume Lethières, a reputed neoclassical painter. But even there he found it difficult to absorb the lessons of academicism. As his close friend and early biographer, Alfred Sensier would later write about Rousseau's experience in these studios and described it as "A mediocre taste of the classical education and the arid forms and pretentiousness imposed upon the students. His eye was already too perceptive to not discern at once all of the inanity that this discipline had to offer." Frustrated with the retrograde styles of his early masters, Rousseau decided to paint from nature and so he began to spend his free time in the outskirts of Paris, painting en plein air. Inspiration for this resolve came largely from his admiration for the 17th-century Dutch landscape painters and the English landscape artist, John Constable. That he was unsuccessful in his bid for the 1829 Prix de Rome in historical landscape category validated his stance against the rigid forms of the genre. For when he was only sixteen, Rousseau knew he was uninterested in 'elevating' the natural beauty of the landscape with a mythological, biblical, or literary motif. Instead, he found himself drawn to the idea of nature as a dynamic entity, vast and endlessly varying, a subject for painting all on its own.

When he turned eighteen, Rousseau began travelling beyond the Parisian borders in search of locations that could be the subjects for his painting. He journeyed back to the Forest of Compiègne heading southwest to the Chevreuse Valley, and explored the Fontainebleau Forest, with which Rousseau would associate in an inseparable way in his career to come. Having spent several months in the Auvergne region in 1830, he had his first successful submission to the Salon in 1831 with Site at Auvergne, a studio painting that he completed based on many studies of the landscape. Rugged terrains, so typical of France, held a space of significance for Rousseau who unlike many other artists never went to Italy, a place that had an established tradition of landscape art for centuries.

A blatant disregard for artistic conventions was the key for the emergence of his distinctive style, which he would develop further. Though, one of his early teachers, Rémond, condemned Rousseau's eccentric compositions and pointedly naturalistic subjects, the young painter found an ally in Ary Scheffer, the highly respected Romantic painter. The latter would be a champion of Rousseau, Camille Corot, and other artists. In fact, it was Scheffer who helped Rousseau when his Descent of the Cattle in the Jura (1836), an inventive canvas, was refused by the Salon of that year. What followed a few instances of success at the Salons in the early 1830s was a series of refusal between 1836 and 1841. This period was a long break with the Salon and the official art world at which point he decided to stop submitting works in order to protest against the conservative system. By so doing he earned a nickname of 'le grand refusé', or 'the great refused one', along with a reputation for original, rule-breaking landscapes.

Mature Period

A dissentient as he was, Rousseau's period of exile from the Parisian official art world was nevertheless, spent on a positive note traveling and exploring the French countryside in search of subjects. Despite the discouragement in Paris and financially uncertain career, Rousseau's capabilities as an artist were recognized by a number of devoted supporters and followers, particularly from the Barbizon School. This was an informal group of artists, including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña, Jules Dupré, François Louis Français, Charles Emile Jacque, Constant Troyon, who lived and worked around the small farming village of Barbizon between 1830 and 1880. Each day in the lives of these artists there would be a new adventure into nature resulting in fresh experiences and art works. At the end of the day, the painters met together at an inn, Auberge Ganne that provided the essential board and lodge facility, and discussed their paintings in the evenings over coffee, tea, or wine.

With an already established characteristic style, Rousseau was a preferred leader. Diaz de la Peña and Millet were his most staunch disciples as they tried to emulate not only his meticulous technique, but also in being non-conformists to the Salon dictates. Diaz de la Peña would go along with Rousseau into the woods to observe him work on his canvas. The ever changing weather and climatic conditions as well as events were dramatic, even poetic for Rousseau, who was able to externalize his deepest subjective emotions on to the nature-scapes. He had thus set free the genre of landscape from being seen as copies of nature devoid of artistic creativity on the one hand and from their dependence on mythological or historical narrative on the other.

As much as he was concerned about landscapes as an artist, Rousseau was committed to work for the upkeep of nature as an activist too. In this regard, he protested the rapid industrialization and encroachment on pristine lands and became more and more involved with the affairs of the Forest of Fontainebleau. At the time plans were laid to raze sections of the forest for the resources and private enterprise. Rousseau wrote an impassioned petition to Emperor Napoléon III to establish a protected land preserve, which was successfully instituted in 1852-53 making the painter one of the earliest environmental conservationists.

His attachment with Fontainebleau grew stronger with time and so, he made it his permanent residence. In the meanwhile, his isolation from Parisian art world put his reputation at stake as he was considered a hermit-like recluse. But, Rousseau maintained and cherished close friendship with a few fellow painters and writers like, Jules Dupré, Alfred Sensier, and Théophile Thoré. He however liked to keep his personal life private. He was a contented bachelor until his friendship with the realist novelist George Sand brought him on the verge of matrimony. The story began when Rousseau came to know about Sand, a well-known writer, through his friendship with her son Maurice Sand in 1839. Association between Sand's family and the artist grew stronger as he stayed in the Berry, close to Nohant village of Indre Department where the writer lived in a mansion. The pond near the road, a farm in the Berry was painted by him here between 1845 and 1848. Perhaps, inspired by Rousseau, Sand also worked for the cause of anti- commercialization of the forest region. Having known the artist through his art and his activism, Sand wished for and eventually proposed the hand of her adopted daughter to him in 1847. Unfortunately, fed by gossip, for which Rousseau blamed Dupré, this alliance ended in interpersonal conflict and utter disappointment. Coming to terms with this situation, he later went on to live with a woman named Eliza Gros for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, she was repeatedly hospitalized for various medical maladies, and was described by Sensier as mentally unstable. Bitter from his personal and professional difficulties, Rousseau sought solitary refuge in the forest, his melancholy often making it apparent in his pensive landscapes.

Late Period

The 1850s saw a turn in Rousseau's fortunes. The Revolution of 1848 brought about a new (if only temporary) liberalization of the Parisian Salon's jury, allowing Rousseau to re-enter the official systems and institutions. The Salon of 1849 accepted his An Avenue of Trees, Forest of l'Isle-Adam (1849) and presented him with a first-class medal, a recognition that would exempt him from facing or submitting to the jury ever again. Further, as a way of restoring Rousseau's standing as an artist, the government offered him a commission for the Musée du Luxembourg. The resultant canvas, Edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau: Sunset (1848-49), is significantly larger than the original commission. The revival of Rousseau's official reputation reached its apex in 1852 when he was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor, followed by a gallery dedicated solely to his work at the Exposition Universelle of 1855. Steep increase in the sales of his works, both within France and internationally was a result of this prestigious exhibition. In spite of this, by the 1860s, Rousseau struggled again to make ends meet, due largely to his wife's persistent illnesses and to the declining interest in his work. His paintings of the late-1850s and 1860s are suggestively dark, such as the Winter Forest (1846-67), a canvas he had begun and abandoned in the 1840s only to rework it in the last years of his life.

When he was elected to the position of President of the Jury of Exposition Universelle in 1867, Rousseau was honored. This joy seemed to be short lived as he felt slighted again for being one of the few members of the Jury who had not been conferred the Officer of the Legion of Honor. While this was later remedied, the insult was too hard for Rousseau to cope with and adversely affected his health. In just a month after the exhibition he was paralyzed and put into the care of the painter Jean-François Millet. Under Millet's care and tending, Rousseau made a brief recovery in which he was to be found tracing landscapes from his bed. Unfortunately, his health deteriorated again leading to his death in 1867. Before breathing his last breath, Rousseau had finally received the greatest honors that his country could bestow upon an artist from none other than the Emperor.

The Legacy of Théodore Rousseau

A master in capturing the candid beauty of the natural world, Théodore Rousseau was one the strongest leaders of the landscape revolution that characterized 19th-century art. Liberating the genre of the redundant weight of mythological and historical narrative, Rousseau's landscapes affirm that nature itself was a subject worth painting.

Rousseau's association with the Forest of Fontainebleau and its enigmatic allure was concretized not only through his aesthetic of naturalism in many paintings of it, but also in his efforts to protect the land itself from impending dangers of the Industrial Revolution. Personal attachment with the forest inspired the latent environmental activist in him to fight for its protection a decade before his American counterpart, Ferdinand.V.Heyden, who was instrumental in the creation of Yellowstone National Park. His refusal to conform to the canons of academicism and dictates of the Salon paved way for the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists whose plein-air landscapes would be associated with the foundations of Modernism, positioning Rousseau as a progenitor of the avant-garde and its iterations throughout the 19th and 20th-centuries.

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