Art and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century France: The Landscapes of Theodore Rousseau

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Art and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century France: The Landscapes of Theodore Rousseau

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 285 pp.; 91 b/w ills. $62.50

When a painter takes his easel, his paints, and his homemade lean-to and wanders through the countryside choosing a spot, what is he doing? Is he following some preconditioning that will lead him to select (or to assemble from scattered elements) a soothing pastoral scene or rugged, wild terrain? Are the forces propelling him personal, historical, cultural, social? How, in other words, are we to understand landscape painting in general and in the middle of the 19th century in particular? The difficulty, Greg Thomas contends, is that we have been taught to treat the latter as a stage in the development of realism-or its more free-spirited companion, naturalism-with plein-air painting taking a pivotal role. Artists had long sketched out-of-doors, but the oil canvases they produced were composed in their studios. The midcentury innovation, it is commonly accepted, was that nature would now be captured more immediately (even if sketching and reworking were still practiced), and hence more truthfully.1

The plein-air movement or new painterly techniques therefore receive scant attention from Thomas. Rather, he focuses on the intentions of the Barbizon school and, more specifically, what motivated Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867), the chef de file of French midcentury landscape artists, to paint what he did and to structure his paintings the way he did. These practices and often subconscious motivations, Thomas determines, can be summed up by the term ecological. By "ecological," Thomas means an inchoate perception of the organic unity of nature where man is more often intruder than participant. It is important to Thomas's argument that Rousseau's approach to nature remain more intuitive than articulated, because he sees Rousseau's ecologism emerging from and through his art and not as a full-blown doctrine. His contention is that Rousseau himself was no more able to understand what he was striving for than contemporary critics who had only momentary insights into the new vision of nature he offered them. They were hampered-Rousseau included-by the fact that there existed as yet no conceptual language to express this new holistic approach to nature.

Although he treats Rousseau as an innovator, Thomas is also intent on separating him from another tradition that fits him into a heroic mold as a romantic visionary persecuted by a philistine artistic establishment. For the fifteen years before the Revolution of 1848, Salon juries rejected Rousseau's entries, earning him the nickname of the grand refuse. Then his fame soared so that by the 1867 Exposition Universelle he headed the jury selecting paintings for the artistic display. He finally received the coveted legion of honor and in 1865 was invited to spend a week at Napoleon III's retreat at Compiegne. Rousseau's conservationist battle to salvage the forest of Fontainebleau's oaks is treated at length by Thomas, but he refuses to align the artist with a political camp. Rousseau circulated in a radical, avant-garde milieu during the July Monarchy but was also adopted by Orleanist art lovers, as he would be by Napoleonic industrialists and ministers. Hence, we may perceive in him a mixture of stances, perhaps more liberal in his younger days and of a more conservative bent later. Thomas prefers to see him as fundamentally apolitical. Even artistic battles were fought on his behalf rather than at his instigation, drawing him into camps that portrayed him as martyr to whatever artistic creed his heralds championed. All in all, Thomas means to disentangle Rousseau from the stranglehold of previous interpretations and free him for his own.

French landscape painting when Rousseau began his career in the early 1830s remained captive to the classicizing modes of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, privileging Italianate landscapes, presented to the eye as prospects and bounded like a stage by foreground trees. …