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Théodore Rousseau - Biography and Legacy

French Painter

Born: April 15, 1812 - Paris, France
Died: December 22, 1867 - Barbizon, France
Movements and Styles:
The Barbizon School

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.

Gustave Le Grey, The Forest of Fontainebleau, 1856. Le Grey's photograph bears a striking resemblance to Rousseau's <i>Edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau: Sunset</i>, painted in 1848-49

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

Rousseau's studio in the village of Barbizon, at the edge of Fontainebleau

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

Nadar's photograph of Théodore Rousseau(c. 1855-59)

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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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Théodore Rousseau Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 25 Oct 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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