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The Barbizon School Collage

The Barbizon School

Started: 1830
Ended: 1870
The Barbizon School Timeline
Go to the country - The muse is in the woods.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Signature

Summary of The Barbizon School

Pioneers of the Naturalist movement in landscape painting, The Barbizon School was a loose association of artists who worked around the village of Barbizon, located just outside Paris near the Forest of Fontainebleau. Members came from different backgrounds and worked in a range of styles but they were drawn together by their passion for painting en plein air and their desire to elevate landscape painting from a mere background to mythological or classical scenes to a subject in its own right. The rugged countryside and ancient trees of the forest held a powerful attraction and inspired several generations of artists from Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, and Jean-François Millet to Renoir and Manet.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • In reaction to the stylized and idealized depictions of figures and landscapes favored by Neoclassicism, most artists that formed part of the school approached painting in a naturalistic manner - capturing the things that they saw truthfully, making careful observations and painting directly from nature to faithfully reproduce the colors and forms of the countryside.
  • Although many pieces produced by artists from the school contain figures, most are without narrative and this echoes the wider tenets of the school in that the landscape itself forms the main subject matter of the work. The exception to this is Millet who extended the concepts of Naturalism to the human form, focusing on rural laborers in the area around Barbizon and often including a social commentary in his art.
  • The Barbizon painters trialed various techniques including applying wet paint onto wet paint, completing a canvas in a single sitting, and concentrating on the effects of light on the landscape. Many also worked using looser brushstrokes and a freer style than was traditional in Academic painting. These experiments had a profound impact on the work of the Impressionists who travelled to Barbizon as young artists to learn from the members of the School.

Overview of The Barbizon School

The Barbizon School Image

The Forest of Fontainebleau first began attracting artists in the 18th century including the Neoclassicists Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld, Théodore Caruelle d'Aligny, and Alexandre Desgoffe. The painters were drawn, not only, to the wild and varied landscape, but also to the French fables and legends that were associated with the forest. It was, however, the arrival of Corot and Théodore Rousseau in the early 19th century that made the area into a magnet for artists including Jean-François Millet, Charles-François Daubigny, Constant Troyon, Charles Jacque, and Narcisse-Virgilio Díaz de la Peña.

Key Artists

  • Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was a nineteenth-century French painter and printmaker best known for his landscape paintings executed outside in the open air. He was highly influential to many of the French Impressionists.
  • Millet was the Realist co-founder of the Barbizon School near Paris. He is especially known for his depictions rural life and peasant labor that had a large influence on later modernists.
  • A leading member of the Barbizon School, Theodore Rousseau primarily painted landscapes, and the forest of Fontainbleau in particular. He was able to infuse with emotion and character into his canvases, leaving the viewer with the impression of the power and mystery of nature.

Do Not Miss

  • The Hudson River School was a nineteenth century American art movement that celebrated the wilderness and great outdoors. The Hudson River School artists were influenced by the Romantics, using dramatic scenes of nature to express the American ideals of their time: discovery and exploration.
  • Naturalism is a movement within painting where the human subject is depicted in natural habitats and social milieus, with an emphasis on visual accuracy.
  • Realism is an approach to art that stresses the naturalistic representation of things, the look of objects and figures in ordinary life. It emerged as a distinct movement in the mid-nineteenth century, in opposition to the idealistic, sometimes mythical subjects that were then popular, but it can be traced back to sixteenth-century Dutch art and forward into twentieth-century styles such as Social Realism.

Important Art and Artists of The Barbizon School

Fontainebleau: Oak Trees at Bas-Bréau (c. 1832-33)

Artist: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

This image of a section of the forest famous for its large Oak trees exemplifies the naturalistic treatment that Corot explored at Barbizon (having first developed the technique in Italy in the late 1820s). The colors of the earth, the rugged tree trunks, and their precise foliage are almost photographic in their rendering. The viewer's eye is drawn into the woods and to the sky above, where the shape of a billowing cloud echoes the foliage of the trees. Reflecting the Dutch landscape painters' practice of depicting the landscape in three horizontal bands, Corot expands the middle zone of the trees so that a sense of their vitality and expansiveness is conveyed.

In this early work from the group, Corot brought a modern directness to landscape painting, putting aside both the Neoclassic tradition of landscape as backdrop and Romanticism's preference for sublime nature, in order to simply portray the landscape as he saw and felt it. The simplicity of the subject matter and its detailed observation reflect this. Corot reused the large tree that forms the focus of the image in his painting Hagar in the Wilderness (1835) which was displayed at the Salon the same year.

Oak Trees and Pond (1850-1855)

Artist: Jules Dupré

Depicting a quiet pond, where a herd of cattle are drinking, this image emphasizes the towering oak tree that rises from the low horizon up to the stormy sky. The tree dominates the image, reaching out to the edges of the canvas on two sides and forming an intense focal point for the viewer against the whites and greys of the clouds. The herdsmen driving the cattle are barely visible, suggesting the insignificance of humanity in comparison to nature, represented by the oak. Whilst demonstrating a naturalistic treatment of elements within the image, the painting is essentially a product of Romanticism conveying the power of nature through both the oak tree and the dramatically lit clouds which threaten an impending storm.

Whilst visiting England in the early 1830s, Dupré encountered the work of John Constable. This landscape with its precisely depicted botanical details, muted but realistic hues, and subject matter showing a quiet scene of rural life demonstrates Constable's significant influence on Dupré. Dupré is sometimes credited with bringing the English style of landscape painting (of which Constable was a key proponent) to France. Whilst it is highly likely that Dupré popularized the style amongst members of the Barbizon School, Constable was certainly not unknown in Paris prior to this point due to his exhibition of paintings at the Salon.

The Beech Tree (1855-1857)

Artist: Jean-Baptiste Gustave Le Gray

This photograph depicts a single great beech tree in the Forest of Fontainebleau that seems to lean back as if tearing free of the earth and exposing its roots. As a result, the tree conveys a sense of movement, a dynamic energy, as its foliage fills up the picture frame, its trunk glowing with sunlight.

Le Gray's work brought the then new art of photography to the Barbizon School. He was one of the most important early French photographers, due to his iconic photographs, his technical innovations in the medium, and his influence as a teacher. His students included Charles Nègre, Henri LeSecq, Olympe Aguado, and Masime Du Camp. Like the painters, he often depicted the forest by focusing on particular trees, which became dynamic, central characters. As a result, a mutually influential relationship developed between photography and painting in Barbizon.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson

"The Barbizon School Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson
Available from:
First published on 19 Apr 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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