Escape into Nature

Article excerpt

The most important movements of nineteenth-century French art--Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism--were all touched by a group of landscapists known as the Barbizon School, named for the village of Barbizon, the group's spiritual locus. Emerging in the 1830s, these artists--including Charles Francois Daubigny and Jean-Francois Millet--shared a devotion to nature, and strove to convey their sense of an idealized natural world, in the face of the rapidly encroaching industrial age.


Camille Pissarro


etching, 1890

purchase, 1978


THE PURSUIT of natural subjects took these artists away from the pressures of urban life to the village of Barbizon and to other rural destinations. They drew inspiration from the inherent beauty and permanence of nature, and from the people who lived and worked close to the land. As they retreated from Paris, however, they witnessed the encroachment of urban-industrial forces on the French countryside. Their response to this degradation was to create images that venerated nature by defying harsh contemporary realities, such as the erosion of farmland, and focusing on the essential aspects of the landscape. The resulting body of work offers a range of idealized visions of nature that evokes the pre-industrial past, and emphasizes the immemoriality of nature and agrarian life.


Jean-Francois Millet

Leaving for Work

etching, 1863

pruchase, 1972


Born of a poor rural family, Millet had a vision of agrarian life that was emotionally charged, yet considered. He admired the Roman poet Virgil and his Greek predecessor Theocritus. One intellectual thread that connected that Greek poet to this artist was the importance each placed on the integrity of the family unit, here symbolized by this proud, robust couple, and the symbiosis of nature, the seasons, and agrarian life.

Horatio Walker

The Woodcutter

charcoal on paper, co. 1910

purchase, Chancellor Richardson Memorial Fund, 1977


During the late nineteenth century in America's northeast, there was also a growing nostalgia for the simple, agrarian life. Wealthy urban collectors acquired works by Millet and his confreres, and also the work of American artists who had adopted the Barbizon idiom. Although he was Canadian, Horatio Walker belonged to the American Barbizon movement and enjoyed great commercial success. He travelled to rural communities along the St Lawrence River making sketches of agrarian life.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot


glass etching, 1860

purchase, 1976


Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot first worked in the Fontainebleau Forest in the 1820s before travelling to Italy as part of his academic training. From then on, travel remained an integral element of his practice: he worked in his Paris studio during the winters and escaped the city in the warmer months. While travelling, Corot worked directly from nature, gathering ideas for the more formal compositions he would later create in his studio. …