Precursors of Impressionism: Barbizon School

Introduction

Movement in Impressionism is generally believed to have begun the onset of the contemporary era in art and it stemmed due to the discontent with the conventional and emotional themes and dehydrated specific methods of paintings which were endorsed by the ‘Académie des Beaux-Arts’ in Paris.

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Famous impressionists

The preliminary impressionists were Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley. The immediate precursors of impressionism included John Constable and J. M. W. Turner who were the painters of the ‘English landscape’. In 1871, when Monet and Pissarro viewed their work the first time, they were absolutely mesmerized by the technique that Turner used to depict the atmosphere and the use of disseminating light effects of shadow creation on solid objects. An additional pioneer of France’s impressionist movement was the ‘Barbizon’ school of painting.

Nearly thirty years prior to the foremost impressionist display, Camille Corot, an irregular affiliate of the Barbizon school, occasionally is referred as the ‘father of impressionism’, construed the ephemeral facets of varying light, in a succession of themes painted during the entire course of the day at different times. Monet’s foremost tutor, Eugène Louis Boudin, who was also a pre-impressionist painter of on the spot aquatic landscapes completed rapidly at their original sites, trained his descendants to communicate an emotion of impulse and naturalness. Similarly, Gustave Courbet promoted the impressionist painters to seek motivation from daily occurrences in life.

Édouard Manet, who is occasionally referred to as the first impressionist (even though he refused to accept the term) illustrated how understated luminous portrayal can be achieved simply by the using a combination of contrasting and brilliant colors along with shade variations using in-between colours that were neither too dark nor too light. The commencement of the novel period of art was actually heralded by his ‘Dejeuner sur l’herbe’ (1863, Louvre, Paris), displayed in the ‘Salon des Refusés’, organized in resistance to the art portrayal of the Académie. The impressionist exhibition was organized by the painters in 1874 where thirty demonstrators united to oppose the established style of art prevalent then, and thereby exposed their approbation for the bold sketchy and shadowy paintings of Manet. The expression ‘impressionist’ was actually originally but sarcastically penned by a Paris magazine writer to describe a painting by Claude Monet labeled as ‘Impression: Sunrise’ (1872, Musée Marmottan, Paris).

Consequently, the word was formally taken on for the third display of artworks of the impressionists in 1877. Prominent French contemporaries who supported the impressionists consisted of such learned individuals including as Émile Zola and Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Caillebotte, who was a painter as well as a collector of paintings along with Paul Durand-Ruel an art trader. Initially the general public including the journalists were unreceptive to the innovative approach but in the years that followed, developed a taste and accepted impressionism.

As stated earlier, the Barbizon School was an important and noteworthy predecessor of the impressionist movement. A faction of French artists, whose work had gained immense popularity with Boston collectors since the 1840s, are supposed to have lived in or near the Barbizon town, near the forest boundary of Fontainebleau in France, approximately between 1830 to 1870. It was here that they produced paintings of animals, landscapes and people living in the nearby regions and areas.

What was remarkable about this faction was that instead of traditionally painting in the studios, they preferred to paint outdoors, in the natural scenic beauty, and it was this factor that dissociated them from the rest of the painting world. The painters of the Barbizon school emphasized and focused their work on everyday themes along with rural subject matter similar to the Impressionists, and preferred to work ‘en plein air’ meaning ‘in the open air’, close to nature. Their novel approach of out door painting devoid of boundaries provided them with a wider range of themes and subjects to work with, initiating enhanced realism and fresher colors as compared to the French painters of their times.

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They wanted to capture nature on canvass using a fresh and spontaneous approach and technique. Their refusal to paint using the conventional historical themes along with the rigid imitational fashion which were greatly preferred by the conservative French Academy actually enabled them to become the precursors of impressionism. Thus it was this new found informal and natural painting technique that popularized the Barbizon school of painting terming them as one of the noteworthy pioneers of impressionism. Associates of the Barbizon group included, Théodore Rousseau (the nominal leader), Jean François Millet, Jules Dupré, Charles François Daubigny, and Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena (1808–76).

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot was an occasional member and was instrumental in the evolution to impressionism by his spectacular paintings of silvery landscapes. The art work paintings of the members of Barbizon faction are on exhibition in almost all the museums of the world.

Boston-born painter William Morris Hunt (1824-1879) was an important impressionistic artist and trained with the noteworthy Barbizon School painter, Thomas Couture in France. He appreciated Couture style of drawing directly with oil on the canvas along with canvases subjugated by the effects of light and shade and color. Hunt found this technique rather energizing and called it ‘beauty of line, beauty of masses, beauty of color require an incessant sacrifice of detail’. He was thus a dedicated promoter of the Impressionist Barbizon approach which he applied to his ‘modern’ subjects of the scenes of city life.

References

Baumann, Felix; Karabelnik, Marianne, et al. (1994). Degas Portraits. London: Merrell Holberton.

Denvir, Bernard (1990). The Thames and Hudson Encyclopaedia of Impressionism. London: Thames and Hudson.

Gordon, Robert; Forge, Andrew (1988). Degas. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Gowing, Lawrence, with Adriani, Götz; Krumrine, Mary Louise; Lewis, Mary Tompkins; Patin, Sylvie; Rewald, John (1988). Cezanne: The Early Years 1859-1872. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

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Moskowitz, Ira; Sérullaz, Maurice (1962). French Impressionists: A Selection of Drawings of the French 19th Century. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company.

Rewald, John (1973). The History of Impressionism (4th, Revised Ed.). New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Richardson, John (1976). Manet (3rd Ed.). Oxford: Phaidon Press Ltd.

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