The Barbizon School and the Birth of Naturalist Art: Enchanted Landscapes

Camille Corot - Ville d’Avray. Barbizon School. Camille Corot - Ville d’Avray. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A glen at dawn dappled with white dew drops. A panorama of the windswept countryside.  An overgrown forest in dusky deep winter. Such celebrations of nature defined the movement known as the Barbizon School, a loose association of artists maintained from roughly the 1830s to the 1870s that shared an unyielding passion for authentic study of rural France. Growing exponentially around the midpoint of the 19th century, the Barbizon School helped to usher in wider celebration of landscape painting. Moreover, the artists of the Barbizon School’s push for a sense of immediacy and study of light effects in their paintings helped to pave the way for Impressionism. In this article we celebrate these artists of the Barbizon School with a close look at the historical context for their formation as well as the works themselves. 

The Origins of the Barbizon School 

A revolution was brewing in the art world in the early years of the 19th century that placed at its core the natural world. Up to that point, the art realm had been dominated for generations by the Academic system of artistic training and exhibition, which emphasized the value of fields like history painting over landscape views. However, this hierarchy had, by the early 1800s, fallen out of alignment with painterly trends. For example, despite the Academy’s denial of landscape painting, it was a field that had been popular among some artists since before the major art academies of Europe had even been formed. Some artists had deduced compromises; for example, 18th-century painter Nicolas Poussin composed predominantly landscape paintings, but he tempered these pure landscapes by also including Biblical and Classical stories to ensure the warm reception of his work. 

The tables began to turn, however,  around 1816, when the prestigious Prix de Rome competition – sponsored by the French king Louis XVIII’s Royal Academy – entered new artistic territory. In 1816, the award focused its call for applicants on historical landscape paintings, the first time in history that the prestigious prize was earmarked for the field. This tacit acknowledgment of the growing interest in landscape resulted in widespread excitement about the potential of nature as a subject matter. Soon, artists were clamoring for striking outdoor spaces that could serve as muses for landscape compositions. 

Enter Barbizon

By the late 1820s, artists were in hot pursuit for locales in which to try their hand at landscape compositions. Barbizon, a rural hamlet nestled into one of France’s grandest forests, fit the bill. Perched at the edge of tens of thousands of acres that comprise the Forest of Fontainebleau, Barbizon proved an ideal outpost for painters as it granted easy access to large swaths of relatively unspoiled nature. Its woods were also home to an incredibly diverse and rugged landscape that offered painters myriad opportunities for novel views. Moreover, Barbizon was only a short train trip away from Paris, and the village inn, the Auberge Ganne, served as a welcoming de facto outpost for those painters who wished to take an extended stay. Given these ideal conditions, this rugged yet rich environment became the muse for the Barbizon painters, who pushed the ideas of landscape painting to new heights. 

The Advances of the Barbizon School 

Camille Corot - The Bridge at Narni.

Camille Corot – The Bridge at Narni. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond their focus on nature, which at the time was revolutionary in itself, the Barbizon School, as this network of painters later became known, helped to promote several technical innovations that would be absorbed by later generations of artists. These included: 

Plein Air Painting

The Barbizon painters were pivotal in promoting painting en plein air, or in the open air, a practice that tasked the artist with painting directly from nature. Rather than sketch on site and then return to the studio to map out a carefully composed oil-on-canvas  landscape, the Barbizon painters would trudge into the forest armed with palettes and easels so that they could find a vista and capture its instantaneous beauty. The power of this approach was that it allowed Barbizon painters to capture the more immediate impacts of light and shadow on the landscape. 

Play of Light 

Part and parcel in the pursuit of plein air painting was the desire to capture the play of light within Barbizon painters’ landscapes. They realized that shifting clouds and rusting tree branches resulted in captivating dappling illumination, so they sought to capture those subtle transitions to bolster their efforts to convey the instantaneity of their natural views. 

Charles Francois Daubigny - Bord de riviere.

Charles Francois Daubigny – Bord de riviere. Sold for ¥1,400,000 JPY via Mallet Auction (July 2012).

Authentic Views

Further fueling the Barbizon painters was the aim to capture a sense of reality in their compositions. This often meant subdued palettes that underscored earthen aspects or suggestions of peasants or villages to reinforce the rural sensation of their scenes. 

The Key Artists of the Barbizon School 

Many artists came through Barbizon to paint or to commiserate with the network of artists that had decamped there. Several figures, however, were particularly key to the success of the movement and its longstanding impact on art. 

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796- 1875)

Only turning to art after trying his hand at different professional paths, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was immediately drawn to the landscape. First studying under accomplished landscape painter Achille Etna Michallon in the early 1820s and then continuing to expand his skills during extended study in Italy, where he found the inspiration for later Salon works like The Bridge at Narni (1826), Corot had begun to codify aspects of his plein air approach to the landscape before the decade was through. These came into full focus in 1829 when Corot arrived at Barbizon.

It was not his first visit to the tiny village, but it was nevertheless a formative one as it provided the emerging artist with the perfect environment for him to perfect his artistic study directly from nature. Such inspiration can be sensed already in View of the Forest of Fontainebleau (1830; National Gallery of Art), where Corot juxtaposed the rugged, rocky bend of a creek against the delicate study of a young woman reclining in the foreground. Corot became a fixture at Barbizon, with young artists later traveling there in part for the chance to study with the amiable “Papa Corot”. As his career and his collaborative exchanges with others at Barbizon progressed, Corot’s style became increasingly loose, as is hinted in later paintings like Souvenir de Dardagny (1852-1853).  This loosening, along with his advocacy for the study of light, made Corot an invaluable mentor for the impending Impressionists. This experimentation with light can be seen in his characteristic use of white dabs of paint to suggest dew-glistened grass, as can be seen in works like Ville d’Avray (1867; National Gallery of Art).

Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña (1807-1876)

Narcisse-Virgil Diaz de la Pena - Forest Landscape.

Narcisse-Virgil Diaz de la Pena – Forest Landscape. Auction passed (Est: $4,000 USD – $6,000 USD)
via Houston Auction Company (November 2014).

The life of Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña (Narcisse Diaz) was not an easy one: he was orphaned as a child and then lost his leg to an infected bite at the age of 13. Diaz, however, persevered to become one of the most celebrated painters of the Barbizon tradition. First trained in the art of porcelain painting, some of Diaz’s earlier paintings recalled Classical themes of mythology or explored the mystical East. Later, though, he turned to the landscape, in part because he was fascinated with the painting of Théodore Rousseau. Given the latter’s connections to Fontainebleau, Diaz was easily pulled to Barbizon as well. From the 1830s onward, Diaz excelled at the art of landscape painting. Often capturing rather tempestuous scenes, like that seen in Forest Landscape,  that celebrated the majesty and momentous quality of nature. 

Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867)

Achieving artistic success in the famed Parisian Salon already in his early 20s, Théodore Rousseau focused his work from the very outset on views of nature. It is perhaps thanks to this love for landscape that Rousseau made Barbizon his home in the later 1840s and used its sweeping surrounding vistas as the source for many works. His paintings, like Edge of the Forest (circa 1850; Louvre Museum), were at times celebrated and at others treated to mixed reviews for their often earthen palette and air of wistfulness. A look at his work reveals, nevertheless, his undeniable passion for capturing the subtleties of nature, from the brilliance of a sunset captured in Soleil couchant sur les sables du Jean-de-Paris to the simplicity of a peasant woman walking home from the fields in Paysage d’été

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875)

Jean François Millet - The Gleaners.

Jean François Millet – The Gleaners, 1857. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By the dawn of the 1840s, Jean-François Millet was on a promising trajectory. In addition to his work being accepted by the Salon, Millet also had the good fortune to befriend the burgeoning circle of artists working at Barbizon, including Théodore Rousseau and Narcisse Diaz. Millet officially moved to Barbizon by the early 1850s, however, his work was markedly different from many of his colleagues there in that he maintained a focus on rural life. His landscapes, like Shepherdess Seated on a Rock (1856; Metropolitan Museum of Art), were typically balanced with pastoral views of peasants at work or harvesters in the field. This emphasis proved to be a crucial contributor to Millet’s success as his works like The Gleaners (1857; Musée d’Orsay) would become landmarks in the rise of Realism at the midpoint of the century. 

Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878)

Charles-François Daubigny - Notre-Dame de Paris.

Charles-François Daubigny – Notre-Dame de Paris. Sold for ¥1,300,000 JPY via Mallet Auction (December 2021).

An academically trained painter who fell under the spell of Barbizon as early as the 1840s, Charles-François Daubigny perhaps was not the most decorated of this naturalist network. His paintings, however, particularly those created over the final two decades of his career, reveal a powerful connection with the landscape. Many of Daubigny’s paintings, like Notre Dame de Paris (circa 1838) and  Bord de riviere (circa 1875) and focused on the study of the sky and water, a tendency perhaps owed to his studio boat, nicknamed “Botin”, that he navigated down the Seine River and others to capture such striking views. 

The Legacy of the Barbizon School and its Influence on Later Art 

The artistic atmosphere of Barbizon continued to buzz well into the second half of the 19th century. The departure of many of the core protagonists with the onset of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) brought an effective end to the group, however, the influence of this school’s novel approach to nature had by that point had an indelible influence on painting. 

The most direct impact can be seen in the work of the Impressionists, like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, from the 1870s onward. Both Monet and Renoir traveled to Barbizon to study with its painters between studio sessions at the Parisian Académie des Beaux-Arts. From these sessions, both young artists learned the value of instantaneous compositional development as well as the painterly potential of light effects, aspects they would eventually place as core to the Impressionist approach. 

Camille Jean-Baptiste Corot -Dardagny. Barbizon School.

Camille Corot -Dardagny. Sold for €47,000 EUR via Osenat (November 2023).

This influence carried over into the subsequent generation of the Post-Impressionists, with figures like Vincent van Gogh looking to Millet as a mentor, who also served as a core founder of Realism. Alongside Gustave Courbet, Millet helped to introduce the art world to unfiltered views of the lesser-studied sides of contemporary culture. 

Nurturing a Love of Naturalism 

Whether it’s an enduring love affair with the French countryside or a personal passion for artistic innovators, the artists of the Barbizon School offer a bit of both. Pushing forward into uncharted territories, these pioneering artists unabashedly explored the natural world to bring a renewed freshness to painting. Their lasting legacy on later artists is undeniable, but what is equally proven is how scintillating their scenes of Fontainebleau continue to be today.