When John Constable’s masterwork The Hay Wain (1821) was exhibited at the Royal Academy, it attracted far less attention than he’d hoped for, but set in train the sequence of events which led to French Impressionism. A French dealer, John Arrowsmith, became interested in the work, and started buying paintings by Constable for sale, and entered some in the Paris Salon of 1824, which had been delayed until late August. There, The Hay Wain was awarded a gold medal, and inspired young French landscape painters to go to the village of Barbizon, on the edge of Fontainebleau Forest, where they formed the Barbizon School.
In this article and its sequel tomorrow, I trace a little of the artistic history of the Barbizon School which led to the birth of French Impressionism.
Camille Corot’s early Ville-d’Avray: Entrance to the Wood (c 1825) must have been painted after that Salon and before he departed for Italy, and shows the classical influences gained during his training. Over what was probably a series of plein air sessions, the foliage in the foreground is finely detailed, and the dominant tree in the middle of the painting has been worked anatomically, its foliage laid carefully onto a structured framework of branches. This is similar to the approach used by Constable, and the French tradition stretching back from Michallon.
When Corot returned to France and joined the group of artists gathering in Barbizon village, he painted Fontainebleau Forest (The Oak) (c 1830). The twisted limbs of the oak have taken more time and care, sufficient to give some texture and shadows to the trunks and branches.
Among the other artists was Théodore Rousseau, whose Panoramic View of the Ile-de-France from about the same year may have been driven in part by the growing popularity of panoramas as entertainment. Rousseau was more innovative in the projection of this view. The angles of lines of trees and other objects in the foreground appear to show wide-angle lens distortion, although the earliest known photograph wasn’t made until 1838. One possible explanation is that Rousseau, and perhaps others before him, used optical devices such as the camera obscura to draw in the view.
Constant Troyon was another of the artists who gathered in Barbizon. He had been a pupil of Camille Roqueplan, who introduced him to Corot and the others. His View at La Ferté-Saint-Aubin, near Orléans (1837) shows the influence of John Constable, who died in the year that Troyon painted this.
Although Corot’s oil sketches were often quite loose, Young Man in front of a Great Oak (1840-2) is more typical of the highly detailed graphite sketches which Corot made of trees in the Fontainebleau Forest. He captures the form and texture of the trunk of this oak with a remarkable economy of line.
Corot painted The Toutain Farm, Honfleur far from Barbizon in about 1845. Its marvellous trees all but obscure and upstage the farmhouse beyond.
The most outstanding of Troyon’s early paintings must be his Approaching Storm from 1849. Set on a Constablesque river, two anglers appear to be readying themselves for the torrential rain heading in their direction, while others still wander in the last patch of sunshine on the far bank.
Troyon is at his most successful when painting into the light, or contre jour, as in his wonderful Cattle Drinking (1851). This shows the banks of the Touques River in Normandy, which he frequented in the 1850s, sometimes with Eugène Boudin, who was a great influence on Claude Monet and Impressionism. After Troyon’s death, this painting was still held in high regard: it was even included in an exhibition of the ‘hundred best masterpieces’ at the Georges Petit galleries in Paris, in 1883.
Charles-François Daubigny became friends with Corot in 1849 or earlier, and joined the group in Barbizon. The Harvest from 1851 was his first real success, at the Salon the following year.
Jean-François Millet lived in Barbizon village from 1849, and was an active member of the group, although he placed greater emphasis on figures. Characteristic of his paintings from this part of the country is Seated Shepherdess from about 1852. Millet’s figures lack fine detail and are formed in a more painterly manner, as precursors to the ‘impression’ which was to come to the fore during the 1860s and 1870s.