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Nineteenth Century Artists: The Barbizon School

( Originally Published 1913 )

The new life with its manifold problems which the French people, suddenly set free from despotic rulers, found engulfing them, demanded new methods of expression, whether the medium were art or literature. Action, feeling, and emotion were required to represent even a small portion of this life on canvas. The founder of the romantic school was Delacroix. The term "romantic" came originally from the Romance language, set over against the Latin. In other words, the classical school had its beginnings in a revival of Greek forms passed down through the medium of the Latin language. This new movement originated not in the Latin but in the Romance countries, and hence was called the romantic movement. The romantic school gave no thought to producing beautiful effects but to portraying action and feeling. It is said that Delacroix restored feeling to the human face. A struggle ensued between the two schools and finally there came forth the third, the so-called Eclectic school, which borrowed the best qualities from both. Delaroche originated this school, and, while it was quite lacking in originality, the paintings produced by its adherents have much to commend them.

The latter portion of the nineteenth century witnessed the progress of the Individualistic School of art, called so for lack of a more characteristic name. The art evolved by the individualistic painters was in many instances a natural outgrowth of earlier schools, but, although aided by the experiences of the past, the later artists developed an individuality denied early classical painters.

Several landscape artists came to prominence, called sometimes the Barbizon school from the fact that they settled for the most part in the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, near a village called Barbizon. Among them were Corot, Rousseau, Dupre, Diaz, and Millet.

"They gave supremacy to the sky and its influence, and record the delicate changes of the atmosphere until modern landscape becomes `more a painting of air than of earth.' Though all were rebels against a system and were working with similar aims, their work is remarkably individual. Supplying to the French nation expression for poetic feeling, they are truly the French poets of rustic nature, irresistibly attracted to her, though many of them and of their numerous, though less conspicuous, allies were city-bred. But each has his special department of rustic nature. Corot and Jules Dupre are the poets of nature's power to reflect the sentiments of men; Rousseau, the poet of forest scenery; Daubigny, of atmospheric effects-in which, however, all add a strophe of more or less power, and Corot no doubt outsings them all; Diaz of hue and color, while Millet, in the later development of this influence, landscape and figures, is the profound and pathetic poet of lowly labor. Sympathy with rusticity, too, associates Jules Breton with the same movement. It was, no doubt, through the keen feeling for the humble life depicted in their landscape-genre, and of which out-door life and human toil, as the sowing and reaping, the stone picking and weeding, were so essential a part, that human sympathy was so deeply enlisted in landscape. Thus, it is partially a result, or growth, of the democratic attainment of the age which gives the sense of individual worth, making the humble peasant `the man for a' that,' and, while it is not a painting lesson learned from the Dutch, it has its source in the same underlying feeling of the importance of humble things to which the Dutch, as a result of their struggles for a government `by the people, for the people,' attained two centuries earlier."'


Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) was by natural temperament and circumstances the happiest, most content of the "1830" school. His father intended him to follow a mercantile life and was disappointed when nothing could allure his son into paths of worldly gain. When it was plain that his heart was forever with the natural world and the representation of it, he granted Camille a modest allowance with permission to follow his true bent. Never after was there any worriment or dissatisfaction-no longing for means which finally were his by inheritance. Corot was content to study landscapes in varying lights and shadows and to set up his easel wherever he caught an inspiration. Trees were his delight and no other ever painted them so wonderfully. While he never lived in Barbizon he was a friend of the Barbizon painters, and his work belonged with theirs. Although popular opinion of the time favored landscapes without human figures, Carot's nymphs and wood-creatures were acknowledged as belonging to his pictures. We can get into the spirit which animated Corot best by reading his description of a morning's dawn which he once wrote to a friend.

"A landscape painter's day is delightful. He gets up early, at three in the morning, before sunrise. He goes and sits under a tree and watches and waits.

"There is not much to be seen at first.

"Nature is behind a white veil, on which some masses of form are vaguely indicated. Everything smells sweet. Everything trembles under the invigorating breezes of the dawn.

"Bing! The sun is becoming clear and begins to rend the veil of gauze behind which the meadow and the valley and the hills on the horizon hide. The vapors still hang like silver tufts on the cold green grass.

"Bing! Bing! The sun's first ray-another ray. The little flowers seem to be waking in a joyful mood and each one of them is drinking its drop of quivering dew. The leaves feel the cold and are moving to and fro in the morning air. Under the leaves the unseen birds are singing-it sounds as if the flowers were singing their morning prayer. Amoretti with butterfly wings are perching on the meadow, and set the tall grasses swaying.

"We can see nothing, but the landscape is there, all perfect, behind the translucent gauze of the mist which rises-risesrises, inhaled by the sun, and, as it rises, discloses the river silver-scaled, the meads, the trees, the cottages, the vanishing distance. We can distinguish now all that we divined before. Bam! the sun is risen. Bam! a peasant crosses the field, and a cart and oxen. Ding! Ding! says the bell of the ram who leads the flock of sheep. Bam! All things break forth into glistening and glittering and shining in a full flood of light. of pale, caressing light. . . . It is adorable! and I paint -and I paint. . . . Boum! Boum! The sun grows hot-the flowers droop-the birds are silent. Let us go home! We can see too much now. There is nothing in it.

"And home we go, and dine and sleep and dream; and I dream of the morning landscape. I dream my picture, and presently I will paint my dream."


Theodore Rousseau was ; another successful painter of trees. Born of the middle, class in 1812, he early gave promise of much native ability. When eighteen he was already one of the acknowledged leaders of the romantic school. It was a sore cross to him that for years none of his pictures were accepted by the jury of the Salon, but then, neither were those of Delacroix or any of the new and so-called revolutionary artists. Among his friends his work was greatly appreciated. However, we must take into account the fact that most of these artists had no income and depended upon the sale of their canvases for their living. Pictures that were rejected by the jury of the Salon were seldom salable, and at times Rousseau was sadly reduced in circumstances.

When disappointed with the reception of his pictures, he would repair to the forest of Fontainebleau where he would wander for days at a time. He had an unusual affection for trees, finding them capable of expressing thoughts and ideas. He painted them with the spirit in which portrait painters paint men and women. Whatever the season he represents, whatever the other accessories of the picture, there is the same mysterious power in his trees, unlike those of other artists.

Public favor turned at last and a new understanding brought the messages of the romanticists home to the bitterest critic, but unfortunately the seal of merit was too long deferred in the case of Rousseau.


Unlike either of these two artists both in work and temperament was Jean-Franqois Millet (1814-1875). He came of a long peasant ancestry, of men who were proud of their ability to wrest their living from the soil, who owed no man anything and found a dignity in their daily toil. Millet's father was poor and, like his neighbors, had a large family to care for. He himself possessed a gift for music and was quick to discern his son's fondness for drawing. Not until he was twenty, however, was there opportunity for him to study with an artist.

Millet was fortunate in that his grandmother, a woman of native refinement and great piety, had charge of him through the days while the rest worked in the fields. "Waken, waken, my little Francois the little birds have long been singing the glory of God," she would say each morning. Little Francois was fortunate also in having an uncle who was a cure and able to instruct him in Latin. He became well versed in Bible lore and in Virgil.

At last his father realized that, whatever the circumstances at home, his eldest son must have the chance to try his skill, and he was sent to Cherbourg to study. It so happened that his teacher was able to help him but little. This much he did, nevertheless; he persuaded the citizens of Cherbourg to subscribe money which enabled Millet to go to Paris. The income promised was not long forthcoming, but by means of it he was enabled to go to the great art center and become familiar with the work of the great painters. This peasant youth presented a sorry figure in some of the studios of the day and felt sadly ill at ease. He was far better grounded in the classics than his companions, who found him only a butt for their jests, while their conversation was equally distasteful to him. Like most poor struggling artists, he shortly married and the situation became more urgent. Even at his low prices it was hard to sell his sketches, and occasionally his friends were obliged to come forward to prevent the family from starving. Finally Millet realized that his lot was with the peasants and he removed his family to Barbizon, after which the struggle for existence, while bitter, was never again quite so appalling.

The Sower was Millet's first great painting after his removal to Barbizon. It created much excitement. Some critics found something grand in the style of this utterly new picture; others worked into it some socialistic doctrine. They held that the very attitude and bearing of the Sower indicated that he hated the rich. Going to Work, The Grafter, and The Gleaners, followed year after year. This last was a forceful painting. In accordance with an old custom, known in Old Testament times and observed still in some countries, the poor are allowed to follow the harvesters and gather up any heads of grain that have been passed by. This picture shows three of these poor women, gaunt and appealing in their deep poverty. Yet much more is shown. One feels the heat of the summer day, the breath of the harvest field where is being garnered the fruits of long labor. The color which gleams on the standing grain beyond is glorious. Again the critics saw in the three women, "savage beasts who threatened the social order." Meanwhile Millet continued to paint the people he knew and believed in-the peasants, ceaseless in their toil.

The Angelus was exhibited in 1859. "What do you think of it?" he asked a friend before the name had been affixed. "It is the Angelus," he cried. "You can hear the bells-I am content," was Millet's reply.

Millet felt that pictures should convey the sense of sound. "One ought to be able to make people hear the songs, the silences, and murmurings of the air. They should feel the Infinite." In describing one of his sheep pictures some one has said: "One hears more than the bark of the dog; one hears the shouts of the shepherd; one hears the pattering footsteps of the sheep-the patter, patter, like the sound of heavy rain on a summer evening-and above all one feels the silence of the night."

While the Angelus did not at once find a purchaser, it was subsequently sold for fifty thousand francs, and then Millet realized that at last his messages were awakening response in those who recently had condemned them.

First Steps, The Shepherdess, the Goose Girl-these and several others of a long series from peasant life were completed, and at length Millet exhibited his Man Leaning on a Hoe. The final cry that a social revolution was here indirectly threatened was met by a reply from the artist himself. "Socialistic? Is it possible to admit that one may have some ideas in seeing a man gaining his bread by the sweat of his brow? Some tell me that I deny the charms of the country. I find more than charm. I find infinite glories. I see as well as they do the little flowers, of which Christ said: `Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.' I see the halo of the dandelions, and of the sun, also, which spreads out beyond the world its glory into the clouds. But I see, as well, in the plain, the steaming horses at work, and in a rocky place a man exhausted, whose 'Haw! Haw!' has been heard since morning, and who tries to straighten himself a moment and breathe. I reject with my whole soul democracy as it is known at the clubs; I have never dreamed of being a pleader in any cause; I am a peasant, a peasant!"

No consideration of Millet, however brief, would be adequate unless it took into account his capacity for suffering. He realized that by suffering he was the better able to picture life. Many sorrows came to him; he was often unable to supply the necessities to his family, though their needs were the simplest. Lack of means prevented him from visiting his mother before she died, although she waited long to see him once again. His grandmother had exercised a profound influence over him, yet he had to know that she died wishing for him. Belated fortune caused many a grief, many a disappointment. Yet Millet himself said that he hoped he never would become stoical, since then he would cease to feel with his fellowmen. This serious side of life has been almost too constantly dwelt upon, while such pleasures as came to him are sometimes forgotten. His wife shared his vicissitudes without a murmur; his children were devoted to him; even had he been better possessed of means it is certain that he would not have wished to exchange his humble peasant life for a more conventional mode of living. He loved the woods, the fields; he loved the newly ploughed ground; he loved the awkward, stolid peasants, with their furrowed faces and bent backs; he even loved the labor which wore out their lives. As a poet sees beyond the sorrow and suffering the infinite harmony in the world, beauty everywhere if one's eyes are trained to see it, his ears in tune to hear it, so Millet recognized the peasant's lot as one aspect of the earthly portion. Of changes that might mitigate its misery he concerned himself not at all; they belonged to the future. He saw the nobility of faithful service in the humble round of the peasant's duties and set it forth to be seen by those who had previously passed him by with indifference or scorn.


Jules Dupre and Narcisse Diaz both belong to the Barbizon school. Dupre was born in 1811; Diaz in 1810. Dupre was of mild temperament, retiring disposition and keenly sus ceptible to the moods of nature. He early went to work in his father's porcelain shop, learning certain secrets of his later work there. He gradually drifted into his true province-the portrayal of rustic life. His farms were always farms where people lived; his roads and highways were frequented by at best a passing farm-cart; his mills and meadows were ever shown in some relation to the ones who dwelt among them. He rarely pictured the country uninhabited, but rather as an abiding place for men.

Diaz was of Spanish birth. When a youth he lost a limb through the effects of a rattlesnake bite. This misfortune he in no way allowed to cloud his days. He had a fond love for rich colors and delighted in painting autumnal scenes with the glowing tints of the dying year. When he became possessed of fair means he sought out a home by the sea, finding even more solace in its moods than in his beloved Fontainebleau.


Rosa Bonheur (1828-1899) became one of the greatest animal painters of all time. Left to her own devices when a child, she made playmates of the neighborhood pets. Her love for animals led her into various eccentricities, and with her brothers she was left to roam about at will. Her father at length noted his daughter's drawings, and, being an artist of some ability, began to give her regular training. It was her delight to spend days together out wherever animals might be seen. Dressed in boy's attire, that she might not attract notice, she visited stockyards and slaughter houses in order that she might acquire an intimate knowledge of the creatures she wished to paint.

Her Oxen Ploughing brought her fame, and throughout a busy life her paintings were henceforth in constant demand. Often alone, she tramped over the mountains to find the deer, and in Scotland sought unfrequented spots where wild animals might be taken unawares. Around her at home she collected quite a menagerie of pets that were devoted to their mistress. Her lions followed her like dogs and one of them died with his head on her arm.

Her Horse Fair is most famous. Rare genius was required to adequately portray this stupendous scene. It was sold for 300,00o francs and hangs today in the Metropolitan Museum.

Honors were heaped upon Rosa Bonheur and at last she was presented with the badge of the Legion of Honor, which had never before been bestowed upon a woman. This gifted, persevering woman never would be lionized. Her friends were always welcomed, but she seldom saw strangers. In her home at By, on the edge of the Fontainebleau forest, she spent the later years of her life.

Children as a rule are fond of animals, and in recent years Rosa Bonheur's pictures have been copied repeatedly and are well known by children in all lands. This adoration on the part of little people for one who so truthfully represented the creatures she dearly loved, is a testimonial of her great genius.

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