They went out and blazed a trail for impressionism

Barbizon painters valued emotion, beauty of the natural world


October 03, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

The road to impressionism -- and, with it, the birth of modernism -- led through the tiny French village of Barbizon, a picturesque rural hamlet some 40 miles southeast of Paris on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau.

There, starting in the second quarter of the 19th century, artists such as Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, Charles-Francois Daubigny and Jean-Francois Millet began practicing a new way of portraying nature, taking their easels and canvases outdoors to paint spontaneously in the open air.

The artists of the Barbizon school were Romantics and radicals who believed in the superiority of emotion and imagination over rationality, individual expression over academic formalism and convention.

Yet they were also Realists who wanted to record the precise contours and atmosphere of Barbizon's ever-changing landscape -- its rustic fields, meadows, peasant cottages and farm animals --and imbue it with the awe they felt in nature's presence.

In doing so, they reinvented the art of landscape painting and paved the way for the even more radical experiments of the impressionists who would follow.

This, in brief, is the narrative recounted in The Road to Impressionism, a beautiful exhibition that opens today at the Walters Museum of Art. The show brings together some 70 works by Corot, Rousseau, Millet, Daubigny and other masters of the Barbizon school whose careers produced some of the most magical paintings in the history of art.

Take, for example, Corot's exquisite little painting The Evening Star, which greets visitors in the first gallery. The scene depicts a lyrical twilight over a dark wood that surrounds a luminous pond. In the center of the picture, a woman leans against a birch tree and raises her right arm in salute to a single point of light over the forest.

The picture is all mood and atmosphere. But the details of foliage, tree trunk and winding sheep track are so precisely observed that today one feels one could find the exact spot where the painter set his easel to capture this dream-like scene.

Similarly, Millet's nocturnal masterpiece The Sheepfold at Moonlight, one of the most famous pictures in the Walters' collection, is a tour de force of close observation combined with fine Romantic feeling.

It is the end of the day, and a shepherd and his dogs are returning their charges to the fold. A yellow gibbous moon hangs low over the horizon, its position so precisely recorded that astronomers later were able to deduce from it the exact hour the picture was painted: 10 p.m. in mid-January.

The Barbizon painters rejected the era's prevailing view that Italy, with its ancient ruins, was the only proper subject for landscape painting, and that landscape itself was a lesser art form compared with history painting and portraiture.

And unlike earlier artists, who made rough sketches outdoors that were later finished in the studio, the Barbizon artists regarded their open-air paintings as completed artworks. In this they were aided by recent technical innovations such as new types of pigments and metal paint tubes that allowed them to work outside with unprecedented freedom.

These new materials also allowed the Barbizon artists to capture the ephemeral color and lighting effects produced by the region's varying seasons and weather. In all these aspects, the Barbizon artists anticipated the revolutionary impact of impressionism.

In a way, the Barbizon painters succeeded almost too well in laying the foundations for the artists who came after them. For many years, their reputations were largely overshadowed by the more famous names of Manet, Renoir, Degas and Monet.

Yet during the late 19th century, their works were widely admired, particularly in America. At a time when many of the impressionists were still struggling for recognition, the Barbizon painters were already enjoying both critical and financial success.

William Walters, the Baltimore collector who with his son, Henry, founded the Walters Art Museum, was a passionate enthusiast of Barbizon painters such as Leon Bonvin, whose brilliant watercolors inspired him to acquire the largest collection of Bonvin works in the world, many of which are included in this show.

The exhibition is also a testament to the depth of the Walters' 19th-century collections: A number of the works have never been publicly displayed by the museum, while others haven't been exhibited in decades. Because the works of the Barbizon painters so often are overshadowed by those of the impressionists, this exhibit represents a delightful opportunity to enjoy a treasure trove of rarely seen works by a group of 19th-century masters who helped decisively change the course of European art.

Road to Impressionism

Where: The Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Today through Jan. 17

Hours: Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 students

Call: 410-547-9000, or visit the Web site,

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