Barbizon Artists Find Forest of Inspiration

By Shaw, Kurt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 8, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Barbizon Artists Find Forest of Inspiration

Shaw, Kurt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Starting in the 1820s, the Forest of Fontainebleau, located 35 miles southeast of the center of Paris, became the symbol of unspoiled nature.

It was a place where artists traveled to find inspiration. As the century passed, ordinary urban middle-class citizens visited in search of physical and spiritual renewal. Even today, the place is a favorite weekend getaway for Parisians.

That's why the very first painting visitors will come to in the Frick Musuem's latest exhbition is "Forest of Fontainebleau" (1871) by Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Pena (1807-1876). 'The Road to Impressionism: Barbizon Landscapes from the Walters Art Museum" contains many 19th-century works of the same subject.

They, and the other works on view, include the major figures of France's Barbizon School of painting, as well as examples by Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Alfred Sisley (1839-99), the Impressionist painters most deeply influenced by Barbizon School artists.

"We picked the painting as the mascot for the show because not only is the Forest of Fontainebleau so important to the whole Barbizon movement, but, apparently, the artists, because they love the trees so much, sort of advocated to have a section of the forest set aside as a reserve, much like what was done 10 years prior at Yellowstone," says Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at Frick Art & Historical Center.

Nineteenth-century France was a hotbed of new ideas, political movements, scientific discoveries and creative activity. Important movements in the history of art reflected this ferment. The Barbizon movement was in the middle of it, both chronologically and stylistically. The name Barbizon came from the small village near the Forest of Fontainebleau where the artists worked.

The work of the Barbizon school dovetails with most of the major artistic movements of mid-19th-century France, with the intensely expressive trees of Diaz, as well as those of his contemporary Theodore Rousseau (1812-67), conveying the Romantic approach of earlier in the century, and Jean-Francois Millet's (1814-75) interest in the life of the rural laborer becoming a powerful force in the rise of Realism.

These artistic movements ultimately led to Impressionism in the last third of the 19th century, perhaps France's most enduring artistic legacy.

The 32 paintings on display -- most in their exquisitely detailed, original frames -- all come from the permanent collection of The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The internationally renowned collection of art was amassed substantially by two men -- William Walters (1819-94), a wholesale liquor merchant, and his son, Henry Walters (1848-1931), a rail magnate -- and eventually bequeathed to the City of Baltimore.

The collection counts among its many treasures Greek sculpture and Roman sarcophagi; medieval ivories and Old Master paintings; Art Deco jewelry and 19th-century European and American masterpieces.

While staying in Paris with his family during the Civil War, William Walters developed a keen interest in contemporary European painting. He either commissioned directly from the artists or purchased at auctions major works by many of the Barbizon masters, including Millet and Rousseau, as well as the academic masters Jean- Leon Gerome (1824-1904) and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), and the modernists Monet and Sisley, as well as Edouard Manet (1832- 83).

Hall says paintings by Barbizon artists were highly sought after by American collectors like Walters and Henry Clay Frick (1849- 1919), who in their Gilded Age mansions, could experience the reverence for the countryside as espoused by Rousseau, who "heard the voices of the trees and wanted to put his finger on the secret of their majesty."

"The collection of Barbizon paintings is as important to American collecting history as it is to French collecting history," Hall says.

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