This exhibition traced the stylistic evolution of landscape painting as well as the changing attitude toward nature in the nineteenth century through forty-one works by French and American artists.
During the mid nineteenth century, paintings devoted primarily to representations of nature alone became increasingly common. Rather than including historical or mythological narratives within a setting, as had been typical in previous periods, artists focused instead on the topography, atmosphere, and inhabitants of the rural countryside. French artists working near the small village of Barbizon were particularly drawn to the seemingly intimate and harmonious relationship between peasants and the land. Many American artists incorporated elements of the Barbizon School’s poetic view of nature into their images.
Later in the century, the Impressionists continued this devotion to capturing the nuances of the local landscape. Working in both France and the United States, they were especially interested in exploring the fleeting effects of light on everyday modern scenes: bustling docks, sprawling parks, lively street scenes, and garden interiors. The forty-one paintings in this exhibition traced the significant evolution—both philosophically and stylistically—of artists’ attitude towards the surrounding landscape.
The Barbizon School Influential cultural changes in the nineteenth century such as the rise of industrialization and urbanization, decline of traditional religion, and advancements in science provoked an increased interest in the rural countryside. Nature became viewed as a peaceful place of escape from the crowded city, and a timeless source for spiritual nourishment.
Many artists were drawn to the forest of Fontainebleau, forty miles southeast of Paris, whose groves of ancient oak trees evoked a “primitive” and undisturbed setting. They were also inspired by the pure and honest way of life followed by the people living in the small village of Barbizon, near the forest, who relied on the land and each other for sustenance. The Barbizon School artists, as they came to be called, are credited as being the first to consistently sketch out of doors (en plain air), carefully capturing the nuances of nature, especially the effects of color and light within the changing atmosphere. With earthy tones of brown, green, and blue, their images explore the quiet poetry of a forest interior or open meadow, and celebrate the dignity of hard-working peasants. One must note, however, that the idealization of this rustic way of life was created by artists who were quite removed from the hardships of everyday rural existence.
The American Response to Barbizon Many American artists traveled to France to study and were deeply influenced by Barbizon landscape paintings, especially those by Corot. Painters such as George Inness returned to the Northeast and devoted his images to the changing seasons and transitory skies of the local landscape. While these artists were interested in the careful observation of nature, many such as Jervis McEntee, John Francis Murphy, John Joseph Enneking painted from combined memories of various outdoor excursions, typically not depicting a specific site. For them “that which has been suggested is more interesting than that which has been copied.” American Barbizon paintings are different from the vast panoramic views of the sublime wilderness, untouched by humanity, that were produced by their predecessors and colleagues belonging to the Hudson River School. Rather than depicting grand pictures of the sublime like Thomas Cole or Frederic Church, these artists created more quiet scenes of serenity and reverence. And, unlike those of their French counterparts, these landscapes suggested settlement, but were often devoid of people. In fact, many scenes evoke a sense of solitude, desolation, or the loss of the rural land to encroaching development.
French Impressionism Encouraged by the free spirit of the Barbizon painters who had rejected many elements of the traditional art establishment, a second generation of innovative artists emerged in France during the 1870s. Like their predecessors, the Impressionists painted scenes of everyday life and worked out of doors in order to most effectively render the atmosphere. Many Impressionists, though, were not as interested in age-old rural ways as the Barbizon School had been. They often looked to modern life for inspiration—in cities, markets, harbors, and parks as well as in the countryside. The Impressionists were especially devoted to experimenting with new ways to use color and brushwork to convey the fleeting effects of light on their subjects. They used vivid unmixed colors laid down in highly visible, individual strokes in a manner closer to the way in which recent optical theories claimed that the eye actually sees.
Critic Henry Stephens noted the success of this technique for recreating the natural world: “earth and heaven, water and sky, animals and people all shine with the tints from which the local color changes almost entirely into another color, exactly as it is in nature.” American Impressionism Just as a many American painters had gone to France during the 1850s and later to seek inspiration from Barbizon artists, the next generation traveled to Paris in the 1880s and 90s to study with the Impressionists. Artists like Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman, and Willard Henry Metcalf absorbed the Impressionists’ techniques of painting outdoors, using fresh and vibrant unmixed colors directly from the tube, and loose, short brushwork. American Impressionists never dissolved form completely, as some of their French counterparts had done, but they continued to evoke the vibrancy of light as it played across their subjects.
In a spirit similar to the French paintings, their works celebrate the natural beauty found in modern cities, resorts, and gardens. The artists also brought back to America an affection for working in groups, as they had seen in France at Argenteuil and Giverny. They came home to form their own colonies at Cos Cob and Old Lyme, Connecticut; Gloucester, Massachusetts; and Isles of Shoals, New Hampshire. In 1898, when several artists believed that both the National Academy of Design and the Society of American Artists were too conservative for their mode of work, so they withdrew and formed their own group, Ten American Painters, or The Ten.