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French Landscape Painting: Main Artists

Much of the art of France in the first part of the 19th century was dominated by the academic schools of the Academy, the School of Fine Arts and the Salon. A great deal of the accepted artistic approach either followed the example of Ingres or that of Delacroix. Ingres was heavily influenced by the neoclassicist concepts of linear purity (National Gallery of Art, 2008). Landscape in his paintings was often considered an afterthought with the primary emphasis being placed on the historical event being depicted or the individual portraits being painted and, not surprisingly, line dominating all other technical elements of the image. Delacroix’s emphasis in his painting was focused more upon the “expressive, romantic use of color as opposed to line” (National Gallery of Art, 2009). His images also focused more upon historical events and portraits, but introduced a softer approach as forms were detailed through the use of color rather than line, inspiring future forays into impressionism. Under these influences, landscape paintings were expected to follow a specific set of criteria that included strict compliance with the idealized forms suggested through ancient poetry and history (Amory, 2009). However, painters such as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, both working during the 1600s, had also introduced other acceptable uses of the landscape within the painterly setting to which several artists of the very early 19th century were already orienting.

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One of these artists was Jean-Baptiste Claude Corot (1796-1875). Following the French Revolution and new emphasis on capturing the ‘real’ elements of life in France, Corot had been a business man in partnership with his father in a very successful cloth company before he determined, at age 26, that he wished to pursue an interest in art (Gonzalez-Valerio, 2005). Having achieved early success and being largely independent, Corot followed his inclinations and interests to study the landscapes once painted by Lorrain. However, the contemporary emphasis on realism caused Corot to choose to paint in place rather than sketch and then paint in the studio, reducing the idealized view or the sense of the unreal that he had seen in earlier works. “He painted directly from nature upon small canvases, observing carefully, translating his visual experiences directly and concentrating on architectural clarity and the play of light upon volume (Gonzalez-Valerio, 2005). Although much of his work could be seen as championing the philosophies and approaches of later artists in both the landscape and impressionist traditions, Corot tended to keep his paintings private, only making public those images that more closely fell into line with the accepted forms of expression. By the middle of the century, though, he had become greatly popular for his own work and highly influential in the development of others. His paintings helped to inspire an entirely new approach to landscapes while his independent income enabled him to acquire a position on the board of the Salon. Through this position, he was able to influence the direction of art to a greater degree as he implemented programs designed to encourage new approaches to art and provided financing to encourage new artists in their own artistic pursuits.

The tremendous shift in French landscape painting that took place during the early 19th century was also largely influenced by what would eventually be termed the Barbizon School. This term is used to apply to a group of artists who would gather at a small village called Barbizon just outside the Forest of Fontainbleau (Amory, 2009). This village provided artists the shelter they required during the summer months when they traveled from their studios in Paris to the forest with the express purpose of painting directly from nature and to discuss their ideas and theories. This tradition started in response to a new program introduced by the French Academy in 1816 that awarded artists the opportunity to live and paint at the Villa Medici in Rome as a means of restoring history painting to classical standards. Rather than inspiring a return to the classics, the contest spurred an interest in the concept of traveling to engage in the artistic process or painting on location. Rather than traveling all the way to Rome, many artists took up the habit of traveling a short ways out of Paris to the Forest of Fontainbleau, which offered a wide variety of scenery to paint in a relatively small area of land. “Despite differing in age, technique, training and lifestyle, the artists of the Barbizon School collectively embraced their native landscape, particularly the rich terrain of the Forest of Fontainbleau. They shared a recognition of landscape as an independent subject, a determination to exhibit such paintings at the conservative Salon, and a mutually reinforcing pleasure in nature” (Amory, 2009). In addition to Corot, artists who made up the Barbizon School included Theodore Rousseau, Jean-Francois Millet, Narcisse Diaz de la Pe-a, Millet and Charles-Francois Daubigny.

Works Cited

  1. Amory, Dita. “The Barbizon School: French Painters of Nature” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (2009). Web.
  2. Gonzalez-Valerio, Wilmer. “Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot.” Painters Biographies. (2005).
  3. National Gallery of Art. “French Painting of the 19th Century.” The Collection. (2009).

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