"We must never forget to envelop reality in the atmosphere it first had when it burst into our view. Whatever the sight, whatever the object, the artist must submit to the first impression."


Map of the Barbizon region, France

Map of the Barbizon region, France

In 1863 Claude Monet left Paris for Barbizon, a small village forty miles southwest of Paris on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. çois Louis Français, whose names are both found in the mid-1820s register of The Auberge Ganne, the town's only inn.
The growing community of artists who settled in Barbizon from the 1830s to the 1860s brought a new way of seeing nature and depicting it in painting.  Bearing in mind that at the time landscape painters were considered inferior to all other types of painters, it seems remarkable that, in a very convincing way, these Barbizon "naturalists" were able to overthrow the academic, classical style of painting that reigned supreme in their day. 

Their fresh approach, and the new school of painting it inspired, were born in their power to record atmospheric effects with unwavering commitment to truth, and in their determination to push the landscape, devoid of extraneous gods and nymphs, biblical characters, and other classical or traditional adornments, into the foreground of their paintings. Remarkably, this is how an obscure, mid-19th century hamlet of some 300 inhabitants became the cradle of a major art movement: the plein air painting later known as the School of Barbizon. Indeed, this little town and its surrounding forests served as a training ground for successive generations of Barbizon painters, each learning from the masters who preceded them. This unbroken line of artists not only coalesced into a major art movement of their own, they prepared the way for what is perhaps the most famous and admired art movement to ever emerge, the Impressionists. In a way, the forests that these Barbizon artists explored and painted became an academy for free-thinking, daring artists who learned to perceive and appreciate nature as it really is and to capture its amazing variety, charm, and mystery in their art.

You may ask, ‘Why this particular town—why Barbizon?’ The answer lies in proximity, both in place and in time. In 1817, the organizers of a prize awarded each year to deserving art students, the Prix de Rome, changed their rules. In addition to their category of historical landscape, they added a new one, asking candidates to compete in depicting specific trees. This new competition demanded a precise knowledge of nature, which forced students to abandon their normal practice of working solely from memory, to leave their studios, and study trees, and nature in general, sur le motif (from life). The forest of Fontainebleau was ideal for this purpose: its location was easily accessible to Paris by stage coach and by train after 1849; and it was the site of many varied subjects to paint -- rocks, clusters of tall trees, ponds, oaks, moors of heather, even wild animals.

This close proximity to both Paris and the Fontainebleau forest made Barbizon the perfect place for Parisian students of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to visit as they prepared for the new competition. Then, in 1824, fate intervened to favor the little town even more: news reached Paris that the Ganne family of Barbizon had opened an inn offering full bed and board at a very moderate price. This opportune event created an irresistible attraction for the many penniless young painters of Paris. Equally fortuitous, in America during the same period, an American named John Goffe Rand invented inexpensive, portable metal tubes of colored paint, which instantly made working en plein air practical by simplifying the preparation of paints and making them light enough to carry. 

All of these events combined to create a quiet revolution in art taking place in the Fontainebleau forest as youthful painters from Paris spent long days exploring the wonders of the local landscapeand painting what they saw. But the focus of their artistry and research was no longer the gods and goddesses of nature—it was Nature itself! Yet these daring artists did not divorce themselves entirely from either the landscape traditions of the past or the artistic innovations of the present in other parts of the world. 

Many of the artists who gathered in Barbizon, particularly Jules Dupré, were strongly influenced by the descriptive reality of 17th century Dutch landscapes. As Henri-Pierre de Valenciennes writes in the Elements of practical perspectives for the use of the artist, reflections and advice on the genre of the landscape: “They paint landscape-portraits.” These and other artists were also influenced by what was occurring in England, as reflected in the un-academic landscapes of Richard Parkes Bonnington and J.M.W. Turner – a simple sunset on the plain, a pile of rocks in the forest, a grove of trees under the midday sun. These natural elements were presented as subjects of art on their own merit, without need for historical context or classical additives, and they foreshadowed the concerns and themes that would preoccupy the next generation of great painters, the Impressionists.

“We must never forget to envelop reality in the atmosphere it first had when it burst into our view. Whatever the sight, whatever the object, the artist must submit to the first impression.”

Daubigny painting "en plein air."

Daubigny painting "en plein air."

Clearly, if the Barbizon generation had not pried open the first breach in the ramparts of the fortress represented by the Academy, the Impressionists who followed their lead could not have pressed through in their own quest for freedom in subject matter and technique. Because of Barbizon innovations, the rigidly controlled and endlessly recomposed studio paintings of the early 19th century were destined to become a relic of the past. Even when Barbizon paintings were themselves completed in the studio, they managed to retain their feeling of sur la motif. This stylistic change constituted a true revolution in 19th century painting. Early in that century the great Corot was among the first major artists to adopt this new, respectful approach to nature. He and a few other painters of his time sought a spontaneous and personal response to the landscape. Corot wrote, “We must never forget to envelop reality in the atmosphere it first had when it burst into our view. Whatever the sight, whatever the object, the artist must submit to the first impression.” These prophetic words, written years before the term ‘impressioniste’ entered the French vocabulary, reveal “the generation of 1830” as the true precursors of Impressionism. 

By the 1850s, foreigners who arrived from all over Europe, Russia, and the United States to work in Parisian studios began to follow their French comrades to Barbizon. The registers of the Ganne Inn bear witness to this remarkable mingling of the world’s great artists.  Barbizon’s ideal location on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, the creation of thePrix de Rome in historical landscape, the opening of the Ganne Inn, the fatherly presence of Jean François Millet and Théodore Rousseau, the technological advances in processing and packaging paints – all of these elements combined to bring together a special group of artists that were eventually given a name by David Croal Thompson in his 1891 book: The Barbizon School of Painters. 

Yet the cohesion of this group was not all-pervasive. The hundreds of painters who made the pilgrimage to Barbizon over a 50-year period in the 19th century did not form a homogenous group that consistently applied common rules to painting or that frequently exhibited together. In fact their most common attribute was their strong individualism and their savage will for independence. They were united more in their passion for rigorous observation of nature and in their refusal to add historical context or allusion to something which they believed should stand alone. These were the most important traits that the many foreign artists who joined them in Barbizon carried back to their home countries: a spirit of freedom and faithfulness to nature; the modern vision of landscape that they discovered in the forest of Fontainebleau. The legacy of the Barbizon artists is not limited to what they did but to what they launched: an Impressionist and post-Impressionist revolution that changed art forever. It is a fire that Barbizon ignited, and its spirit still burns bright today.

~ Marie-Thérèse Caille Curator of the Departmental Museum of the School of Barbizon, Barbizon, France
Translated by Jean Audigier, Ph.D., Vice President, Franklin Bowles Galleries