xxxxxMembers of the French Barbizon School of painting were French landscape artists who shared a great love of nature, and, working out of doors, painted landscapes for their own intrinsic beauty and interest. The school was named after a village on the edge of Fontainebleau forest where the school was first formed in the 1830s. The artists, who included Jean François Millet, Théodore Rousseau and Camille Corot, painted directly from nature, and portrayed the reality of simple, everyday life in the countryside some 30 miles south of Paris. The school helped to establish French landscape painting as a genre in its own right, and a number of its members may be seen as forerunners of impressionism.



Millet: The Gleaners – Musée d’Orsay, Paris; The Winnower – Musée d’Orsay, Paris; The Wood Sawyers – Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Man with a Hoe – Getty Center, Los Angeles. Rousseau: Pool with a Stormy Sky – Musée d’Orsay, Paris; Market Place, Normandy – Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; Fontainbleau Forest, Morning – Wallace Collection, London; Sunset in the Auvergne – National Gallery, London. Corot: Fontainebleau Forest (introduction) – National Gallery of Art, Washington; Pool in the Woods – Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; Woman with Pearl – The Louvre, Paris; The Belfry of Douai – The Louvre, Paris; Ville d’Avray – National Gallery of Art, Washington; Greek Girl – Shelburne Museum, Vermont, USA. Church: The Andes of Ecuador – Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, 1855; Niagara Falls – Corcoran Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1857.

xxxxxThe Barbizon School of painting was made up of a group of French landscape artists who, like certain painters before them - such as the Dutchmen Meindert Hobbema and Jacob Ruisdael - shared a great love of nature, and painted landscapes not merely as backgrounds to historical and mythological themes, but for their own intrinsic beauty and interest. The school was named after the village of Barbizon, a small hamlet on the edge of Fontainebleau forest (illustrated), some 30 miles south of Paris. There, a large number of painters, each with his own style and particular interest, painted nature out of doors (en plein air), just as they saw it, so as to portray the reality of simple, everyday life in the countryside. The painting here is by Camille Corot.

xxxxxTheir works, often produced towards the end of the day, excelled in depicting the different moods of the countryside, together with the animals and people of the region. The school had its origins in the 1830s, but it was not until the Paris World Exhibition of 1855 that its back-to-nature landscapes, observed without excessive detail, and capturing a scene in the freshness of time, became widely appreciated for their genuine realism. Historically the school played an important part in establishing French landscape painting as a genre in its own right, and a number of its artists, searching for nature in its pure state, may be seen as the forerunners of Impressionism. Camille Pissarro, for example, was particularly attracted to the works of the Barbizon school, especially those of Jean François Millet and Camille Corot, andxthe paintings of Charles François Daubigny (1817-1878) and Constant Troyon (1810-1865) influenced the young painter Claude Monet. Later, other impressionists came to paint in the forest, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley.

xxxxxIncidentally, Barbizon did not only attract artists. A number of writers, for example, visited the village in search of the simple life and the natural beauty of the woodland. These included the French poet Alfred de Musset, the novelist Georges Sand, and the famous Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote his “Forest Notes” while staying there.

xxxxxJean François Millet (1814-75) was one of the school’s outstanding members. He was born in Gruchy, Normandy, the son of a farmer. He studied art in Cherbourg and Paris, and settled in Barbizon in 1849 after failing to make a living in the capital. It was while working in this small village that he gained a reputation for his realistic, down-to-earth paintings of peasants working in the fields. These scenes, which, apart from The Gleaners of 1857 (illustrated here), included The Reapers, The Angelus, The Sower and the Wood Sawyers (illustrated below), whilst depicting the harsh conditions endured by workers on the land, succeeded in conveying the dignity (almost the grandeur!) of manual labour. Recognition of his talent came in 1867 when nine of his major works were exhibited in Paris. Though an accomplished painter in oil, some of his finest work was achieved in his drawings, pastels and small etchings. Today, a collection of his pictures is in the Louvre, Paris.


Jean François Millet,

Théodore Rousseau,

Camille Corot,The Hudson River

School and Frederick Edwin Church


xxxxxA French artist who often painted at Barbizon but was not a member of the school was Camille Corot (1796-1875). He had a strong love of nature, worked outdoors, and his Italian landscapes of the 1820s - painted in soft, muted colours - influenced members of the school. His landscapes at home became noted for their tones of silvery grey, the result, as he saw it, of soft light seeping through fine rain or woodland mist. He once remarked that to enter into one of his landscapes one had to allow time for the mists to clear! In 1833 he won a medal for his large painting of the forest of Fontainebleau, but, unlike the pure landscape artists of the Barbizon School, he often completed his work in the studio, and he also found other, more lucrative outlets for his artistic talent. Illustrated here is his Pool in the Woods.

xxxxxHe was born in Paris, where his parents managed a fashionable dress shop. He worked for the family business for a while, but in 1822, at the age of 25, his father gave him a small allowance and he began training as a painter, the career of his own choice. He attended art classes in Rouen, but also taught himself a great deal by observing and sketching subjects out of doors. In 1825 he travelled to Rome and it was then that he fell in love with the Italian countryside and revealed his natural leaning towards classical order. He painted in the city and the surrounding countryside, and then visited Naples and the Island of Ischia before returning to France via Venice. His stay, which lasted for three years, produced some outstanding sketches and paintings, such as the Claudian Aqueduct, and his treatment of trees and cloud formation during this period showed the influence of the English landscape artist John Constable, whose works he had seen exhibited in Paris during the early 1820s. He returned to France determined to devote his whole life to painting.

xxxxxCorot settled in Paris in 1828, and over the next six years produced some of his finest landscapes, painted directly from nature. For much of the time he worked in Normandy, at his family estate at Ville d’Avray near Paris, or at Barbizon with his friends Millet, Rousseau and Daubigny. In 1834 he made his second visit to Italy, visiting Florence, Pisa and Genoa, and then travelled across Europe. Throughout this period he produced a large number of small oil sketches and drawings from nature, many of which came to be highly regarded for their free brushwork and their masterly graduation of tone.  

xxxxxDuring the winter months he worked in his studio, enlarging upon these sketches, but he also produced pictures with the annual Salon in mind, and these, pandering to the current taste for pictorial themes in the classical mould, often contained legendary or biblical figures. Two such works of the 1840s were Homer and the Shepherds and Christ in the Garden of Olives. And towards the end of his career he also painted a number of stunning portraits, among which was his famous Woman with a Pearl, completed in 1870 (illustrated).

xxxxxBy 1845 his talent had been widely recognised and, ten years later, when Napoleon III bought one of his paintings, Chariot: Recollections of Marcoussis, the commissions flooded in and the asking prices soared. In all he produced over 3,000 paintings. His major works included The Bridge of Narni, Dance of the Nymphs, and one of his last works, The Belfry of Douais (illustrated below). By the 1850s he was a wealthy man, but he continued his simple life as a painter, and used his money to assist struggling young artists and friends in need, such as the cartoonist Honoré Daumier. Such generosity towards others earned him widespread respect and the title of “Père Corot”. His Salon works apart, his fresh, spontaneous sketches, produced out of doors and focusing as they did on the sheer appearance of natural beauty, paved the way for Impressionism. Indeed, towards the end of his career he gave lessons to Camille Pissarro, one of the outstanding members of that opening movement in modern art.

xxxxxThe French artist Camille Corot (1796-1875) was not a full-time member of the Barbizon School, but he often painted with his friends Millet, Rousseau and Daubigny, and his open-air painting, focussing on the sheer appearance of natural beauty, influenced members of the school and helped pave the way towards Impressionism. Indeed, towards the end of his career he gave lessons to the impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. However, during two long stays in Italy, his landscapes revealed his natural leaning towards classical order, and his paintings for the annual Salon, aimed at pandering to current taste, provided works with some allegorical or mythological interest. And he also spent some time on portrait and figure painting. These conventional works made him a wealthy man, but he used his money to assist younger artists and to help his friends, such as the cartoonist Honoré Daumier. A man who devoted his whole life to painting, his kindness and generosity towards others earned him the title “Père Corot”. Best known among his 3,000 works are The Bridge of Narni, The Little Shepherd, Dance of the Nymphs, his portrait The Pearl, and one of his last works, The Belfry of Douais.

xxxxxIncidentally, in 1899 the American poet Edwin Markham (1852-1940) became a national figure when he published the poem The Man with the Hoe (detail illustrated above). Inspired by Millet’s painting of that name, it was a protest against the exploitation of labour, and its success launched him on his career as a social reformer.

xxxxxA devoted friend of Millet,  the French painter Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867), was the recognised leader of the Barbizon School. As a young artist he preferred to work outdoors, painting romantic scenes of rugged, wild landscape in many parts of France, but, like Millet, he failed to make a living. His work was constantly rejected by the French Salon - he became known as “le grand refusé” - and, because of this, in the mid-1830s he settled in the village of Barbizon. There he turned his hand to quiet, pastoral scenes, painted by direct observation, and before long his house had become the busy centre of the Barbizon School, its members specialising in a return to nature for its own sake. Amongxthese were Jean François Millet, Jules Dupré (1811-1888), Diaz de la Pena (1807-1876), Charles François Daubigny and Constant Troyen.

xxxxxRousseau’s  works, among which were Under the Birches, Evening, Outskirts of the Forest of Fontainbleau, View of the Alps, and Pool with a Stormy Sky (illustrated above), were often sombre in tone, in keeping with his own moody temperament, but by the 1850s he had gained recognition as a prominent landscape artist, noted particularly for his painting of trees and clouds. In his early years he was Influenced by the English landscape painters John Constable and Richard Parkes Bonington, but his development of short, thick brushstrokes made him a forerunner of impressionism.

xxxxxIllustrated above are (left to right): Market place in Normandy, Fontainebleau Forest, Morning, and Sunset in the Auvergne.

xxxxxIncidentally, though many of Rousseau’s paintings were rejected in his early days, there were those who recognised his talent and collected his works. Among these was a French group that included the artist Eugène Delacroix, the poet Charles Baudelaire, and the romantic writer George Sand.

Illustrated here are (left to right): The Belfry of Douai, Ville d’Avray, and The Greek Girl.

xxxxxAnotherxartistic school of this period was the Hudson River School. Formed in the 1820s by a group of landscape artists living in the Catskill Mountain area of New York State, it was the first native school of painting and, being fiercely nationalistic, aimed to portray the beauty and grandeur of the American countryside. The work of its members was characterized by detailed observation and a romantic love of nature, and this style was later taken up by artists working in the West, where dramatic regions like the Rocky and Sierra mountains provided vistas of outstanding natural beauty.

xxxxxThexschool’s most prominent artist was Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900). Born in Hartford, Connecticut, he was the only pupil of the school’s founder Thomas Cole (1801-1848) ), and soon became known for his impressive panoramic views of mountains, waterfalls and seascapes, all bathed in a remarkable luminous light. Inspired by the travels of Alexander von Humbolt (1769-1859), he paid two visits to South America, following in the footsteps of the Prussian naturalist, and, on his return gained immediate fame with his The Andes of Ecuador. Two years later (1857), he secured his reputation as America’s most outstanding landscape artist with his Niagara Falls (both works illustrated below).

xxxxxThe popularity of his work made him a wealthy man and, along with his wife, Isabella, he paid visits to both Europe and the Middle East. By 1876, however, Church was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, and this seriously affected his output. He died in 1900 in his home in Locust Valley, New York, and was buried in his place of birth, the City of Hartford.