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The Barbizon School Collage

The Barbizon School - History and Concepts

Started: 1830
Ended: 1870
The Barbizon School Timeline

Beginnings of The Barbizon School

Jules Hereau's <i> Monsieur Lafontaine Visits Barbizon</i>, (1859)

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.

In the early 1820s, Corot began sketching and painting landscapes in and around Fontainebleau. Whilst he never actually lived in the area, he returned to it frequently including in both 1829 and 1830 and he was an influential and active supporter of other Barbizon artists. In the early 1830s, the development of the Lyon railway system from Paris made easy travel to Barbizon possible and the opening of the Auberge Ganne, a new inn, provided somewhere for artists to live and work. The inn rapidly became a hub where artists could meet, exchange ideas, and form collaborative partnerships.

In 1833 Theodore Rousseau started to visit for extended periods of time during which he would explore the environment, engaging in outdoor painting and sketching. His passion for the forest and for landscape painting made him a natural leader of the Barbizon group and other artists joined him on painting excursions and were influenced by his practice and ideas. Over the next decades the village of Barbizon and its surrounding environs became a primary art destination, particularly during the Revolutions of 1848 which caused many Parisian artists to escape to the relative safety of the countryside. During this time hundreds of paintings and photographs were created, depicting the area and its rural life.

The Barbizon School: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

Augustin Enfantin's <i>An Artist Painting in the Forest of Fontainebleau</i>, (c. 1825) uses an aerial perspective to emphasize the solitude of the artist surrounded by the rugged landscape

Members of the School had diverse interests and artistic styles, but predominantly concentrated on landscapes and painting in the outdoors, pioneering the concepts of Naturalism. As a movement Naturalism focused on depicting a subject matter truthfully and without artifice (although the term itself was not coined until later). Its development was influenced by key figures in the School as well as historic movements and painters from further afield.

Neoclassicism and Camille Corot

This photograph of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot shows him painting outdoors with a large umbrella used by artists to counter the glare of the sun

In the Neoclassical tradition, landscape painting was seen as relevant only if presented in an idealized style and as a backdrop to historical or classical narrative. In 1816 the French Academy launched a Prix de Rome for historical landscape to attract new artists to the style. Enthusiasm for landscape painting spread among young artists, with many of them drawn, not to historical landscape, but to viewing and studying the naturalistic landscapes of the 17th century Dutch painters such as Jacob van Ruisdael and Meindert Hobbema. At the same time a number of artists began sketching outdoors in the environs outside of Paris, of which the most notable was Corot.

While studying with the artist Achille Etna Michallon, Corot learned to paint the scenes he saw naturalistically. As Corot said, "I made my first landscape from nature...under the eye of this painter, whose only advice was to render with the greatest scrupulousness everything I saw before me...since then I have always treasured precision." This precision can be seen in his Study of a Tree Trunk in the Forest of Fontainebleau, October (1822) in which he depicts a fallen and shattered tree down to the texture of its ancient bark.

The influence of both Neoclassicism and Naturalism can be seen in Corot's Hagar in the Desert (1835) in which he combined a depiction of the Biblical story of Hagar and Ishmael with a landscape derived from his Fontainebleau: Oak Trees at Bas-Bréau (c.1832). This combination was due, in part, to his awareness that success at the Salon favored the Neoclassical style, but also due to his own multifaceted approach, resulting in simple landscapes, but also figurative painting, and genre work. He played a major role in bringing the grandeur associated with Neoclassicism to landscape painting as a subject in its own right.

Similarly, Narcisse-Virgilio Díaz de la Peña combined Neoclassicism with a naturalistic treatment of the landscape, as shown in his works where goddesses or nymphs from Greek mythology are portrayed within the forest setting. Still, the work of both artists favored a naturalistic treatment of the landscape, depicting its details precisely, rather than the idealizing treatment of nature favored by Neoclassicism.

Romanticism and the Influence of Constable

Themes of Romanticism ran through the works of a number of the Barbizon painters and this can predominantly be attributed to the influence of the British artist John Constable whose landscapes combined a naturalistic treatment, based upon careful observation, with a Romantic sensibility. Constable's work was first exhibited in Paris in 1824 and members of the Barbizon School drew inspiration from his dedication to landscape painting as well as his broad brushstrokes and loose style that was at odds with the traditions of the Salon and Academic painting. Barbizon painters developed Constable's impasto style and freedom of brushwork and this was further exaggerated by the Impressionists. It was in their attachment to nature, however, that the Barbizon painters most exemplified the Romantic Movement, as Alfred Sensier, the biographer of both Rousseau and Millet, said "... the proud majesty of the old trees, the virgin state of rocks and heath... all these intoxicated them with their beauty and their smell. They were, in truth, possessed."

Realism and Millet

Daguerreotype by Felix Feuardent: <i>Jean-François Millet et sa famille vers 1853</i> (<i>Jean-François Millet and his family around 1853</i>), Musée d'Orsay Paris

The most important Realist associated with the Barbizon group was Jean-François Millet. He became close friends with Troyon, Rousseau, Díaz, and Jacque in Paris and subsequently moved to Barbizon with his large family in 1849, to escape the political and social turmoil in the capital. He continued to live in the area for the rest of his life.

As a movement, Realism began in the mid-1850s and focused on the subjects of the working poor, modern conditions, and social reform. Rather than depicting scenes of the forest, Millet was drawn to the fields and plains extending from Barbizon to Chailly where he observed the workers. Paintings such as his iconic The Gleaners (1857) focused on scenes of rural labor and were often controversial for their depictions of poverty. In Barbizon, Millet found friendship and support particularly from Rousseau and continued to develop his style. He inspired many later artists including the American William Morris Hunt who came to the area to study with him.

Barbizon School and Literature

Cover of <i>Hommage à C. F. Denecourt: Fontainebleau: paysages - légendes - souvenirs - fantaisies</i> (1855)

The Forest of Fontainebleau didn't just inspire painters but took on a literary life in the writing of the Romantics. One of the first noted authors to visit the area was the French novelist Georges Sand in 1833, and others followed. In 1855 an anthology including works by Victor Hugo, Alphonse de Laramartine, Théophile Gautier, and Fernand Desnoyers was published dedicated to the forest. The painters' views of nature were often shaped by their reading of the Romantic writers, but the influence worked in both directions, as the painters' depictions inspired later authors. Novelist Gustave Flaubert completed his novel Sentimental Education in 1869 while staying in Fontainebleau, and the landscape itself became a central motif of the novel.

Barbizon and Photography

Gustave Le Gray, <i>The Road to Chailly, Forest of Fontainebleau (Pavé de Chailly),</i> (c. 1852)

Beginning in the 1850s early photographers such as Gustave Le Gray, Constant Famin, Alphone Jeanrenaud, and Auguste Giraudon went to Barbizon to take pictures of the landscape. Their subjects were similar to those of the painters with whom they often worked side by side, examples include Beech Tree near the Bodmer Oak (early 1860s) and Marsh at Piat (c. 1863) both by Eugene Cuvelier. Genre photographs were also popular as seen in Auguste Giraudon's Artist, Peasant (c. 1870), depicting a young peasant woman resting against a small hay cart with the landscape behind her. Additionally portraits of other artists at work in the forest were created such as Constant Famin's Théophile Chauvel near the Mare aux Fées, (1865-1870). The close working relationships of photographers and artists were mutually influential, for instance, the tonalities and focus of Corot's later work were inspired by his own exploration of photography.

Later Developments - After The Barbizon School

Initially ignored by critics and rejected from the Salon, the work of the Barbizon painters only began to attain success in the 1850s. Rousseau, whose pieces had been rejected by the Salon from 1836-1841, finally had three canvases accepted in 1849. From this point onwards Naturalism became increasingly popular and this was reflected in the 1855 Universal Exposition which exhibited a number of the Barbizon artists.

From the 1860s The Barbizon School led to the formation of other groups and associations of artists throughout Europe. The artists in each area were drawn to the landscape, rural life, and en plein air painting but, as with the Barbizon School, they practiced a variety of styles. Some painters traveled from one group to another, often to work or associate with specific artists.


Paul Gauguin, Seaweed gatherers (1889)

The Pont-Aven School developed in the 1880s and was named after the village of Pont-Aven in Brittany where it was located. A group of Irish artists including Augustus Nicholas Burke, Roderic O'Conor, Nathaniel Hill, and Joseph Malachy Kavanagh were active in the area, and their works favored a naturalistic approach in their landscapes and genre scenes.

Around the same time, Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard, and Paul Serusier developed their own distinctive Post-Impressionist style as they painted scenes of Pont-Aven. They used non-naturalistic colors, bold forms and patterns, and placed an emphasis on human subjects.


Francis Hodgkins and her students painting at Concarneau

Alfred Guillou and Théophile Deyrolle founded the School of Concarneau in Brittany and they were subsequently joined by some painters from the nearby Pont-Aven group, predominantly Americans such as Edward E. Simmons, Arthur W. Dow, and Eugene Lawrence Vail. The most noted artist to join the group at Concarneau was Jules Bastien-Lepage in 1883. Bastien-Lepage was extolled by Zola as the leader of Naturalism, and his presence attracted a number of young artists including the Scandinavian Peder Severin Krayer. From 1880-1890 the school combined realistic subjects with genre subjects, particularly of the fishing boats and harbor life.

Paul Signac, Evening Calm, Concarneau, Opus 220 (Allegro Maestoso), (1891)

Concarneau also attracted a new generation of artists. The Neo-Impressionist Paul Signac went to Concarneau in 1891, where he did his pointillist series Opus 219-221 which depicts the fishing boats at different times of the day with musical subtitles such as Morning Calm, Concarneau, Opus 219 (Larghetto) (1891). Artists of other modern art movements also worked in the area as seen in the Fauvist seascape The Harbor Front and Docks (1905) by Jean Puy.

The Hague School

Johannes Warnardus Bilders founded the Oosterbeek art colony in Holland, modeled after The Barbizon School. His work and examples influenced a number of young artists including Jozef Israëls, Anton Mauve, and his son Gerard Bilders, who pioneered the Hague School. While adopting Barbizon’s emphasis on landscape and scenes of rural life, the Hague School strove for what Bilders described as “the impression of a warm, fragrant gray.” Because of its use of a somber and muted color palette, the Hague School was dubbed 'The Gray School'.

Newlyn School

Walter Langley, Waiting for the Boats, (1885)

Named after the fishing village in Cornwall, England, where it was located, the Newlyn School artists were directly influenced by the Barbizon School to found their own group. The group was pioneered by Walter Langley in the 1880s and members included Samuel John 'Lamorna' Birch, Walter Langley, Stanhope Forbes, Frank Bramley, and the Irish painter Norman Gastin. Harbor scenes, depicting the fishing village's life, often with a tragic cast, were a common subject, as seen in Bramley's A Hopeless Dawn (1888), depicting a woman mourning her husband who has been lost at sea.


The Barbizon School helped to establish landscape painting as a subject in its own right, and painting outdoors as a primary practice.. The Barbizon painters also shaped the development of Impressionism. In 1860 the artist Charles Gleyre began sending his students, which included Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille to Barbizon to sketch and draw. Manet also worked in the forest producing preliminary studies for his groundbreaking Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1863). In Barbizon they formed friendships and working relationships with the more established artists of the group, adopting their practices of outdoor painting, finishing a work in a single session, and using a wet on wet technique and new synthetic pigments. In 1874 the Forest of Fontainebleau was officially established as the first 'Artistic Reserve' acknowledging the importance of the site itself in the development of modern art.

Certain artists from the group, particularly Millet and Corot, also had a more direct effect on other painters. Millet's art initially influenced contemporaries such as Rosa Bonheur and William Morris Hunt, and the Post-Impressionists, Georges Seurat and Van Gogh. His influence continued into the 20th century; Salvador Dali was inspired by The Angelus (1857-59) and the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson studied Millet's images. Millet's The Gleaners also inspired the French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I (2002). Corot's influence was acknowledged by Camille Pissarro. Berthe Morisot, Antoine Chintreuil, Stanislas Lépine, and François-Louis Français. Claude Monet noted that, "There is only one master here - Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing". Corot's Woman in Blue (1874) directly inspired Renoir's Mrs. Hartmann painted that same year, and his geometric compositions influenced both Cezanne and Seurat. Later artists such as Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris referenced his works in their choice of subjects.

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.

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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
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First published on 19 Apr 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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