The Barbizon School and Impressionism

Camille Corot, Fontainebleau- Oak Trees at Bas-Bréau, 1832 or 1833. Oil on paper laid down on wood; 15 5/8 x 19 1/2 in. (39.7 x 49.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, “Fontainebleau – Oak Trees at Bas-Bréau,” 1832 or 1833. Oil on paper laid down on wood; 15 5/8 x 19 1/2 in. (39.7 x 49.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I was a senior in high school, my best friend and I studied art history at the same time. We also loved to hike together, and whenever we came across a beautiful vista or lookout we would exclaim, “Barbizon!” Although I would say “Barbizon!” in a breathy voice that mimicked a 1980s television commercial for the Barbizon School of Modeling (and perhaps it was also a breathless one, given altitude for some of the mountains we climbed?), the true reference of our exclamation was the Barbizon School of artists from 19th-century France. In essence, my friend and I were saying that the Barbizon painters would have enjoyed painting what we were seeing at that moment on our hike.

The Barbizon School was a group of painters who gathered near the French village of Barbizon (about thirty miles southeast of Paris) in the forest of Fontainebleau. These artists, despite coming from various artistic techniques and backgrounds, collectively were dedicated to studying nature and painting landscapes of the Forest of Fontainebleau region. In some ways, this interest in nature was prompted by the display of the John Constable’s landscapes at the Salon of 1824. (You can read more about the history of the Barbizon School on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.) However, it was several decades later in the 19th century, after the rise of Impressionism, that this group began to be known as the Barbizon School.1

Camille Corot, "The Ferryman," ca. 1865. Oil on canvas; 26 1/8 x 19 3/8 in. (66.4 x 49.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, “The Ferryman,” ca. 1865. Oil on canvas; 26 1/8 x 19 3/8 in. (66.4 x 49.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

I wonder, in fact, if the term “Barbizon School” was coined in order to better distinguish the differences between this early group of arists and those associated with Impressionism. (If anyone knows more about the origins of the “Barbizon School” name, please share!) In many ways, we can see how the Impressionists were influenced by the Barbizon School painters. Not only do both groups have an interest in depicting nature, but two members of the Barbizon School, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (shown above) and Jean-François Millet, have parallels with Impressionism because of their interest in depicting an accurate rendering of light and color. Additionally, the Barbizon School painters were the pioneers of painting en plein air, a method which the Impressionists also embraced.And, although Millet was interested in painting peasants and drawing attention to the plight of the poor, which is in contrast to the Impressionists’ focus on the bourgeoisie, we can still find parallel with the fact that both Millet and the Impressionists sought to the depict contemporary people who surrounded them.

Paul Durand-Ruel

Paul Durand-Ruel

There is another interesting connection between the Barbizon School and Impressionism as well. The art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel was a supporter of the Impressionists. His father, Durand-Ruel Senior, was also an art dealer, but he was instrumental in promoting the purchase of Barbizon School landscapes. Paul Durand-Ruel sold Barbizon School art in the 1860s and 1870s, like his father, but then became particularly interested in the art produced by the Impressionists after meeting Monet and Pissarro in London in 1870. (All three men had gone to London to avoid the Franco-Prussian War.) Durand-Ruel could see how the Impressionists were building upon the principles and ideas put forward by the Barbizon School, and he already had built an existing clientele who were interested in landscape painting.

As a result, Durand-Ruel became a promoter and representative of the Impressionists, even committing to outright buying some of their art. In essence, Durand-Ruel wanted to create a commercial demand for Impressionist art, building off of his customers who appreciated the aesthetic and subject matter produced by the Barbizon School. This bold entrepreneurial move to create a commercial demand for Impressionism would help transform the way that the art market operated in the future; art dealers would not merely rely on the annual Salon to dictate which artists or paintings would be commercially popular.3 Durand-Ruel also succeeded in generating an interest for Impressionism in America by setting up a gallery in New York. He applauded the open-minded American public for embracing Impressionism by once saying, “The American public does not laugh. It buys!”

I know there are a lot of sources and ideas that fed into the Impressionist movement, including Chevreul’s scientific studies on color relationships and the possibility that Monet, during his time in London, saw paintings made by Turner. But I also like exploring this connection between the Impressionists and their French predecessors. Do you know of any other similarities or parallels between the Impressionists and members of the Barbizon School?

1 “The Barbizon School: French Painters of Nature,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed October 22, 2014, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bfpn/hd_bfpn.htm.

2 Will Gompertz, What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 38.

3 Ibid, 41.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.