A SECOND time in the story of French painting Fontainebleau becomes the nucleus of a fresh departure. Three centuries earlier Francis I had invited thither Italian artists, thus giving royal indorsement to the inauguration of the French Renaissance. Now a group of artists, settling in Barbizon on the edge of the Forest, developed a new motive : the poetry of the paysage intime.
A great difference separates the two events. The earlier, an aristocratic movement, had been an infusion of French life and thought and art with the southern culture of Greece, Rome and Italy; a recovering of the birthright of the nation in one of the sources of its race and civilization; an assertion of the Mediterranean element in its mixed ancestry. The new movement is democratic, its origin not only northern but essentially French. It represents the northern independence and interest in the facts of nature, and expends its enthusiasm on the native landscape of the simple countryside. But it is also tinged with the Romanticism of its day, so that its exponents are not satisfied to render nature objectively. They bring feeling to interpret what they see and translate their own sensations into poems of nature’s moods.
The suggestion of the paysage intime, as Delacroix explains in his “Question sur le Beau,” published in the Revue des Deux Mondes, in 1854, came from England. At the Salon of 1824, held in the Louvre, Constable and Bonington were represented, as well as Copley Fielding, Harding, Samuel Prout and Varley, while Constable continued to exhibit annually until 1828. In the Salon of 1831 appeared for the first time the young Frenchmen whose names are now immortalized. Rousseau made his first visit to Fontainebleau in 1833, when he was twenty-one years old. The following year he painted the Côte de Granville, which was awarded a medal of the third class. Thenceforth, for twelve years, his pictures were rejected from the Salon, not-withstanding the fight urged on his behalf by Bürger-Thoré, Gustave Planché and Théophile Gautier. It was not until the Revolution of 1848 had overturned the sway of bourgeois officialdom that the Salon was opened to him. Meanwhile Corot discovered Barbizon and Rousseau about 1835, when he was nearing his fortieth year, just as some eight years previously he had become acquainted at the Salon with the works of Con-stable and Bonington. :Both experiences left their impression upon the slow process of his evolution out of the classicalism which he had derived from his teacher, Bertin. He was turned fifty before the result of these various influences were fully assimilated into the manner that is peculiarly his own.
These two, Corot and Rousseau, typify the elements which compose the poetry of the paysage intime. Rousseau son of a small tailor, inured to poverty and born to sorrow “as the sparks fly up,” was inspired by a love of nature that in its intensity amounted to worship, while his study of nature involved an exactitude that was almost mathematical and a rendering of it that vies with the plasticity of sculpture. Corot, on the other hand, whose parents were court modistes, was a stranger to want and vexation of spirit ; one of those rare natures on whom the smile of childhood lingers to the end; an avatar of the Greek spirit that lurks in the spiritual alertness of the esprit gaulois. For Corot’s temperament was classic in the true sense ; trembling to the subtlest suggestion of nature, but also governed by a delicate sense of poise, harmony and rhythm.
It is not unusual to describe Corot’s artistic career as a gradual release from the bondage of classicalism into the liberty of nature. But rather it represents the slowly accomplished union of the two inspirations : that of Nature and the Classic. So far from his early affiliations with Bertin’s classicalism being a deplorable deferring of his artistic salvation, it was a necessary and fruitful approach thereto; one that to such a temperament as Corot’s was inevitable. It was through classicalism that he had to discover himself, and he did so by discovering how classicalism differed from the Classic. He had to sift the true from the false. Nor was it from Barbizon or Rousseau that he derived his love of nature. It is more than latent in his early landscapes and figure-subjects which owe their immediate origin to his Italian visits.
In fact, Corot’s life was not chopped in half, as some writers would have us believe, by a sudden conversion to the “true faith” at the age of fifty; after which he sloughed off his classicalism and appeared as the re-generated. and real Corot of our fancy. The truth is, that his life was an unbroken and consistent whole; a young man’s love for an ideal, bodied in nature’s form and spiritualized by the Classic soul; pursued through years of quietly ardent courtship, until his ideal was won and he dwelt with it in perfect amity.
The better way to measure Corot’s personality and his place in French art is not to compare him with Rousseau, as is generally done, but rather with Poussin. For then one discovers that Corot is joined to the latter in a lineage, characteristically French, while it is through Constable to the Dutch, in direct line from Ruisdael, that Rousseau derived. Corot shared with Poussin both the northern love of nature and the reverence for the Classic. The earlier artist, however, still clung to the idea of nature as the scene of human emotions, uniting his mythological and Biblical figures with the landscape and composing nature and humanity into an arabesque, more distinguished by line and mass than by color. Corot, on the other hand, weds color with line in a unity which is at once more unreservedly a vision of nature and more convincingly impregnated with the human spirit. The fact is, that in both respects, Poussin, alongside of Corot, is a painter of landscape genre, while the latter artist embodies the spirit of nature as it appeals to the spirit of man. For while Poussin harmonized man and nature pictorially, Corot effects a spiritual harmony, based upon undertones of order, balance and rhythm, such as were imagined and visualized by Hellenic artists. It has been well said that Corot did not paint nature, but his love of it ; and his love of it was saturated with the Classic spirit.
Meanwhile a bond of similarity between Poussin and Corot consists in their abstract attitude toward the landscape. Compared with this Rousseau’s landscapes seem local, Constable’s still more so. The latter’s are filled with the charm of familiarity. He is like Daubigny in his gift of making one feel at home in the intimacy of the place. With Rousseau also the individuality of the scene is made familiar. One treads the spot with a feeling of being at home, although, it is true, one’s imagination is drawn toward a wider significance, of which one is led to feel that the local is only a symbol. But, while Rousseau’s intellect was fascinated with the facts around him and his spirit was that of a Prometheus, shackled in torment to the earth; Corot’s is disengaged, more abstract. It soars lightly and songfully as the skylark, and, fluttering down, again, brings something of heaven to earth. His landscapes, in fact, are not halting places on the way to the universal, as Rousseau’s are, but spots of earth, transfigured by something of the universal having been drawn down into them.
It may not be amiss to recall that in the interval since Poussin there had appeared the exquisitely French and spiritual art of Watteau. For there is more than a little analogy to Watteau in the poignant loveliness of Corot’s landscape and in his peopling them with figures. The latter, whether nymphs of classic pedigree or peasant folk are not only impersonal but seem to be embodiments of the spirit of the scene; accidental notes in the harmony of universal music.
The admiration felt for Corot’s landscapes has tended to obscure the importance of his work in subjects where the figure plays the chief rôle. In almost all it is the female figure; treated at first for the sake of its objective personality, then gradually employed as a symbol of the eternal feminine. As Rousseau pre-eminently represents the male force in this Pleiad of landscape painters, so Corot is the unqualified embodiment of the female. His later figure-subjects are idyls of the grace and loveliness of spirituelle girlhood, instinct with the tender sprightliness of springtime and the subtle mystery of awakening day.
In his earlier pictures which comprised the results of his first visit to Italy, he was intent upon the plastic qualities of form and gesture; later, in his numerous pictures of Parisian types, it was the spirit of the subject at which he grasped, while in his final treatment of the figure, which followed his return from the second visit to Italy in 1843, he added the quality of tone. No less plastic, his figures have become more alive because they are enveloped in air; spherical forms in depth of atmosphere. By this time also they are more completely wedded to the spirit of the scene, or if you will, the latter ter is more inseparably incorporated in them, so that to reality is added elusiveness of spiritual suggestion. It is on this side of his art, which he pursued intermittently with landscape, that Corot may be compared with Millet. Their choice of subjects was very different, but both use the figure in relation to the landscape typically; Millet to symbolize the age old routine of labor in the scheme of the universe ; Corot, nature’s pervasive spirit of harmony and recurring youth.
It is rather sentiment or convenience that links Corot with the “Barbizon School.” He seldom visited the Forest, preferring Ville d’Avray and Paris. Nor was he as much in the habit of painting in the presence of nature as the others. His work in the open air was largely the storing of impressions, which he afterwards wrought into pictures in his Paris studio. For this reason and because of his Classic bias, Corot was scarcely accepted as a veritable nature-painter by Rousseau and his immediate circle. Nor was he one in the sense in which they understood the term. Possibly for that very reason his art has more of the universal quality and of inherent personal vitality. Certainly to-day he seems the most modern of the band.
In a brilliant chapter of his “Maître d’ Autrefois” Eugène Fromentin shows how the Barbizon artists invaded and conquered the field of the seventeenth century Holland landscapists. And in this connection he pays the highest tribute to Théodore Rousseau. In doing so, however, he is disposed to overlook the influence of Constable. The English artist’s Hay Wain was seen by Rousseau in 1833, and the latter’s picture of the following year, Cote de Granville, now in the St. Petersburg Museum, shows, as Meier-Graefe observes, the influence unmistakably. Moreover, in the qualities which especially characterize the advance of Rousseau beyond the Hollanders : namely, greater naturalness of color, movement of the tree-forms in atmosphere, and the abandonment of little particularities of detail for a more sweeping and comprehensive synthesis, Constable had anticipated the discoveries and progress of the Barbizon artist by a generation. Nor in the matter of sentiment is the record otherwise. Making allowance for difference of temperament, Constable’s art is as expressive of the poetry of nature, that is to say, of the artist’s love for nature, as that of any of the Barbizon group.
But to recognize this is not to belittle Rousseau. It is only to view him from a different angle; to see his art through the more immediate prism of Constable than the farther one of Ruisdael from whom both are derived.
Meanwhile, if one penetrates beyond these sources of inspiration to the personality itself of Rousseau, it is to discover its essentially Gallic character. What preceded him in the art of Holland and of England becomes in Rousseau a distinctively French incarnation. We can assure ourselves of this fact both by the objective evidence of his pictures and by the psychology they embody.
It is French rural landscape, the appearance and spirit of it that Rousseau specifically interprets. If you are familiar with the French countryside and with that of Holland and of England and have come under the spell of their spirit, it is impossible not to feel that Rousseau is thoroughly French both in his record and interpretation. How shall one characterize the difference? Maybe, it is the snugness of England and the diminutive sweep of Holland that are contrasted with the wider sweep and more expansive intimacy of the French northern landscape.
And psychologically the Gallic strain in Rousseau’s art is equally perceptible. It involves a logic of arrangement, more organized than Constable’s, more subtle than Ruisdael’s. They say that Rousseau, as a boy, was proficient in mathematics. It may be true, for midway in his career as an artist the scientific bent of his mind was developed at the expense of the artistic. He became as rigid a student of the objective facts of nature as any Ruskin could desire. Meanwhile, his art, taken as a whole, reveals that architectonic quality which is peculiarly French. He lays the solid foundations of the ground, roots in it the trees and rocks and builds up their structures, giving to the trees a living vigor as of a giant bracing his huge body and stretching the knotted muscles of his brawny limbs. And back of this stout and stable framework, richly sober and solid in color, he sets the sky, a contrast of evanescent movement, mysterious distance, light, and, often, of flaming color, of which the foreground catches a gleam in some quiet pool. It is said to have been Rousseau’s practice to postpone the painting of the sky until after he had realized his impression of the ground and trees. “It is probably true,” observes M. Camille Monclair, “and this method of procedure was a remnant of the classical spirit.”
The surmise may be correct, but it does not go deep enough. Rousseau had the scientific intellect and an imagination profoundly impressed with the concrete, tangible evidence of force and energy. As an artist it was the elemental qualities of permanence and strength in nature that occupied his genius. Moreover, temperamentally, he had little or nothing of the dreamer or visionary, who can disengage himself from the facts of earth and construct castles in the air. He was, on the contrary, a thinker, close, accurate and logical; a very serious one, leaning toward moroseness, more inclined to sensitiveness than sympathy. The latter or a sense of duty made him cling to his wife, a woman of the forest, although she had become insane and Millet advised placing her in an asylum. But he became estranged from his devoted friend, Dupré, when the latter and not himself received the Cross of the Legion of Honor; and the suspicion is aroused that this or other official slights which Rousseau received were partly due to the attitude of mind expressed in his own words : “I am not understood” ; an idea which, if it grows to a fixity, may easily become morbid.
One instance of misunderstanding Rousseau is exhibited by some writers who affirm that he had “but little of the imaginative temperament.” The supposition appears to result from the old-fashioned separation of the “ideal” from the actual; the former being regarded as something fabricated by the imagination, floating on wings amid clouds, iridescent with light “that never was on sea or land.” Such was Italian idealism, the tradition of which persists unfortunately even to the present day ; notwithstanding Rembrandt, Constable and the Barbizon artists. For it was part of their genius that they discovered and revealed the ideal in the everyday aspects of nature. They possessed that order of imagination which divines the noble in the commonplace ; the beautiful in ugliness ; both aspiration and means of realization in the actual. Perhaps one might call this the scientific imagination as compared with the empiric. It is growing day by day to be the modern conception of the finest kind of imagination, notwithstanding that many artists do their best to retard the growth by clinging to the old remnant of the traditionary “ideal.” They prate, for example, of an “ideal head,” which in plain English represents a girl’s face, prettified out of likeness to nature : with smoothly beveled features, inflated eyeballs, simpering mouth, a china-finish to her complexion and a rose stuck coquettishly in her hair. Meanwhile the layman, recognizing that such and similar flub-dub contradicts the actualities of life, shrugs his shoulders and “guesses it ‘s all right” for artists, but that art clearly “has nothing in it” for the practical man. Whereupon the artist retorts that the latter is a philistine.
Looked at in this modern light, Rousseau is found to have possessed not only imagination, but imagination of that very high order which anticipates the faith and consciousness of -posterity. For to the vast majority of his contemporaries the “ideal landscape” was one fabricated out of the artist’s fancy in the fashion of Claude Lorrain. To look for idealism in what the world considered vulgar; to find it there and gradually to compel the world to recognize it that was the great gift of Rousseau to modern art and life. Perhaps only a Frenchman could have achieved it, since the prestige of his country was behind him. Constable, for example, was ignored by his own countrymen, until they had learned from France to value the poetry of the paysage intime and so to offer belated and none too generous homage to their own artist who had helped to inspire it.
That Rousseau should thus become recognized as the leader of the group and the father of modern land scape was due to the qualities of his imagination, which may be summed up as force and concentration. His was not a roaming but a penetrating imagination, whose grip tightens to conviction. When one thinks of Rousseau there rise to one’s memory a stretch of rude, firm earth, some oaks and boulders; autumn time, noontide or sunset. These supply the motif for so many of his pictures. They symbolize for him those qualities of nature which his own qualities of imagination lead him to dwell upon : its permanence and strength. Nor do we find their repetition pall upon us. The artist’s conviction of their import is so absolutely his soul’s faith that we join with him in worship of these elemental mysteries. For mysteries they are felt to be; no longer ordinary facts, by the time they have been submitted to the alchemy of Rousseau’s imagination.
Some French critic has remarked that the Louvre picture, The’ Edge of the Forest, Sunset (p. 141) , presents a synthesis of Rousseau’s art. There could scarcely be a nobler one. Oaks grouped to left and right, their upper branches locked in an embrace; a shattered stem and riven limbs, reminder of disorder in nature ; a boulder in solid contrast to the stable movement of the trees; a smaller oak beyond, bent over in compliance to superior force, and a spreading level plain of pasture, suggesting the kindlier, more intimate permanence of nature; a sky, flushed with the glow of sunset, which dyes a pool close by us in the foreground, where cows, which have yielded their milk to human needs, are cooling tranquilly or drinking. Transmuted into the abstract by Rousseau’s genius, this epic of nature and man’s relation thereto is Iliad and Odyssey in one; the grandeur of life’s strain and stress and the blessedness of succeeding calm and relaxation.
This picture is also characteristic of Rousseau’s use of color; for, while he, like Corot, anticipates the Impressionists in the “division of color,” which he may have learned from Constable or Delacroix, he still shows him self a tonalist and an adherent of the old idea that harmony demands predominance of the warm hues. He falls short of Constable as a painter of nature’s coloring and as a translator of this into abstract color symphonies does not rank with Corot. The latter, by the way, was much in advance of his contemporaries, except Delacroix, in recognizing that the fundamental principle of chromatic harmony is not a matter of hue but of light and dark tones. By Goya, who so remark-ably anticipated the trend of modern painting, this principle had been enunciated in the paradox: “There is no color in nature, only light and dark.” Delacroix may have learned the principle from Goya during the latter’s visit to Paris about 1820, or while he himself was visiting Madrid in 1832. At any rate he would find corroboration of it in the Spanish artist’s paintings and etchings. But, while Delacroix applied the principle mainly on the warm side of the palette, it was from the cool scale that Corot achieved his most characteristic harmonies; moreover, with less reliance upon hues and a fuller acceptance of the principle of light and dark than even Delacroix.
Rousseau’s characteristic color harmonies have been aptly compared to masses of molten metals, out of which flash the splendor of liquid gems. But it must not be forgotten that one of his masterpieces is The Hoar Frost in the Walters Collection in Baltimore, which was painted in 1845. The date serves to remind us that American collectors were among the first and the most generous clients, not only of Rousseau but of the whole Barbizon group. And, since the appreciation of them which the American artists, William Morris Hunt and John La Farge, did so much to establish has continued to the present time, it is in this country that the greatest number of fine examples of their work exists.
Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena (18021876) and Jules Dupré (18121889) are the two members of the group who reveal most conspicuously the Romantic spirit, while Charles François Daubigny is the nearest to Constable. Dupré is very uneven, his late work especially being labored and heavy in its handling. It represents the deterioration of a motive that always inclined toward the melodramatic and by repetition became mechanical. It is deeply, often violently, emotional and depends for its effects upon striking contrasts. Yet in his choicest moments Dupré could render with fine sincerity the solemn calm of sunset or the conflict of swollen storm-clouds. Probably, however, he was at his best when interpreting the effects that follow thunder-showers, when the cloud forms are broken with intervals of clear sky and the level expanse of pasture, juicy and richly hued, is barred with moving lights and shadows. In these moods there is no hint of an emotional parade of feeling; a wide and genial wholesomeness prevails.
Diaz was more purely the painter. Even his landscapes reveal less the sentiment of nature than the poetry of the palette; and as a colorist he is closest of the group to Delacroix. He understood the principle of division of color, applying the pigments pure and juxtaposing their tones in a delicate tissue of nuances, and used with excellent effect the contrasts of complementary hues. Thus he rendered the effects of shadow without heaviness or opacity. He loved to break up his lights, choosing for his subject the recesses of the forest where the light percolates through the interstices of the boughs and foliage in countless gleams, reflections and refractions, or open spots of woodland landscape in moments following a shower, when the light breaks fitfully from shifting clouds, and trunks, leaves and grass scintillate with glistening raindrops. Again, in his nudes, draped figures and groups of women in gay, Oriental costumes he breaks up the light into innumerable facets, touched in with a peculiar flickering brush-stroke, which curiously resembles that unusual example of Vermeer of Delft, Diana and her Nymphs, in the Hague Gallery. In his handling of the flesh-tints Diaz, like Corot, exhibits the influence of Correggio; imparting to the surfaces a quivering softness and a certain morbidezza. But he has not Corot’s gift of giving his figures spherical form and placing them in space; in which respect he is again inferior to Monticelli, with whom his phantasies of brilliant orchestration suggest comparison. Diaz designed arabesques where Monticelli constructed a concave space and peopled it with blossoming forms. Yet despite these limitations which comparison with greater men reveal, Diaz remains a fascinating master of seductive harmonies.
Daubigny was the junior of Diaz by only fifteen years, while not more than five separated him from Rousseau and Dupré. Yet his work, compared with theirs, has a distinct character of modernity. It may result partly from the absence of any suggestion of the Romantic spirit in the placid, simple landscapes ; but is also due, particularly in later examples, to the increasing breadth of Daubigny’s brushwork. Meier-Graefe has drawn attention to the sketches of Constable, as being probably the example for this freer and broader handling, while the influence of Manet and his followers may well have contributed its share. In an early picture, The Timber Wagon, recently sold in New York, Daubigny appears as the draftsman rather than the painter. A timber wagon is approaching up a slight incline, bordered with banks to which cling the finger-like roots of beech trees that are just beginning to don their yellow and reddish livery, while at the back meadows spotted with trees stretch back to a chateau. The drawing, particularly of the trees, exhibits a conscientious fidelity to the natural facts that is extreme. The treatment is wholly lacking in pictorial synthesis ; and exhibits a dryness and hardness, quite unlike the rich and juicy handling of his matured style. For it is Daubigny’s special contribution to modern landscape painting that he adapted the loose and fluent method of Constable’s sketches to a finished picture. It led him to experimenting with very large canvases, several of which were standing in his studio at his death. One of them, representing a shepherd folding his flock by moonlight on a misty night, is inclined to be flat and dull, with lack of air or luminosity; while another, showing a stretch of brown soil broken up into plots of various cultivation, realizes magnificently the salient features of the receding planes. It is a fine example of organic construction; of the under building of the composition, for possibly it represents an unfinished canvas ; though, even so, if placed like a mural decoration far enough from the eye, it would probably appear completely self-sufficient. For admirers of Daubigny who would study his ability as a landscape builder and the means employed, a visit should be made to the Mesdag Museum at the Hague. For here are examples showing various stages in Daubigny’s method of plotting, constructing and completing the composition.
Constable’s example having drawn attention to the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, it was but a question of time when French artists would go to Holland itself for inspiration. Constant Troyon (1810-1865) was among the first to be drawn thither.
Already he had displayed a decided bias for animal painting; it was therefore natural that when he visited Holland he should realize their pictorial relation to landscape. He would be impressed also by the flat polders stretching to the limit of sight, the low horizons and high vaulting skies. The effect of these mingled impressions was an invigoration and broadening of his landscapes. They became instinct with a sense of spaciousness. The scene may or may not be one which involves actual distance of vision; but it is none the less enlarged in its expression, becoming associated with the feeling of spaciousness. The same is true of the sky, however much or little may be shown. It is felt as a part of what is vast, buoyant with alert air, stirred with breeze or mellowed with large warmth. And to this wholesome vigor responds the earth, teeming with fecundity, whereof the bulky cattle are the animate expression. According with these qualities is the impersonal character of Troyon’s landscape. No mood of the artist’s self interrupts their ample benignity, the expression of the Earth sentiment. It is because of this elemental significance that Troyon transcends the almost purely naturalistic landscapes with cattle of his pupil, Emile Van Marcke (1829-1890) and the latter’s daughter and pupil, Madame Marie Diéterle. But what a magnificent synthesis of the character of animate and inanimate nature these two present, so superior in technical accomplishment as well as in expression and beauty of color to the more photographic naturalism of Madame Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899).
Once in a while Charles Jacque (18131894) surprises us by the grand idyllic feeling of an upland pasture, sculptured upon which are the statuesque forms of a shepherdess and her flock. More often, however, it is the intimacy of some stable, silvered uncertainly by the light admitted through a narrow window or the varied detail of a farmyard, busy with its four-footed and feathered occupants that engages him; scenes alive with the quiet poetry of the country life. Over a technique that betrays the feeling of a sculptor or engraver rather than a painter, he triumphs by sheer force of knowledge and love of animal life. But, on the whole, his most artistic work is comprised in etchings, where his burin moves with fluency and the medium demands economy of means and consequently a more suggestive synthesis.