The Harvest of 1830: The Barbizon Legacy.

Organized by Miriam Stewart and Eric Rosenberg. At the Sackler Museum, Harvard University.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, August 1990)

Barbizon, a village about 35 miles outside of Paris, was a magnet for 19th century artists, who made a pilgrimage to see the sleepy little town near the Forest of Fontainebleau, . In 1840, Claude-François Denecourt published a guide to the Forest:

“Trees four to five centuries old, striking heaps of sandstone, rows of rocks without end, surrounded by vast gorges that can speak only to the soul of the poet the soul of the artist, the soul of anyone who loves marvelous nature.”

A group of artists who lived and worked in Barbizon in the mid-19th century came to be known as the Barbizon School. It included Théodore Rousseau, Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Peña, Charles-François Daubigny, and Jean-François Millet. For them Barbizon was an attitude to nature — a Wordsworthian rapture at Nature’s power to endure, inspire, and renew.

The Barbizon style was naturalistic and intensely romantic—it was an art of blur and smudge and shadow. Théodore Rousseau drew and painted what he called “portraits” of the trees in the Forest. He wrote:

“I heard too the voice of the trees; their unpredictable movements, the diverse forms they assumed, even their peculiarity of being attracted to the light, suddenly revealed to me the language of the forests. The whole world of flora lived like mutes whose signs I could understand, whose passions were becoming clear to me; I wanted to converse with them and affirm, in that other language, painting, that I had hit on the secret of their grandeur.”

Millet  spent most of his life in Barbizon, where he found inspiration in nature and in the daily life of peasants pulling a hard living out of the land. In Millet’s paintings and drawings, there’s a sense of the immersion in the land—a profound sense of becoming part of the flow of life that begins and ends with the earth. Animals, vegetables, people, trees—everything is enveloped and embraced by the land. The earth is solemn, soft, and tender, like a bed—and sometimes like a grave. He wrote,

“What I know of happiness is the quiet, the silence, that you can savor so deliciously, either in the forests, or in the fields.”

Barbizon was a place and a style — and also a feeling—a mood—a time of day — dusk, when the forms of things soften and the edges blur, and a kind of hush falls over the world. “Half-light is necessary in order to sharpen my eyes and clear my thoughts,” wrote Millet.

There’s an elegiac quality in Millet’s work too, because the way of life that he celebrated in his art was fading. That closeness, that intimate connection to the land was already disappearing. The modernization and industrialization of Paris that began in the 1820’s, was reaching out into the countryside and approaching Barbizon.

Millet’s The Gleaners shows women gleaning — gathering the grain left over from the harvest — bending over the field in their heroic struggle to drag a hard living from the earth.

Many American artists and collectors were drawn to the romantic naturalism of Barbizon at a time when the vast American wilderness was disappearing, its virgin forests cut down for timber.

Boston artist William Morris Hunt was the first American champion of Millet. “When I came to know Millet I took broader views of humanity, of the world, of life,” he wrote. Hunt bought many important pintings by Millet and encouraged other Bostonians to buy his work. (Hunt paid $60 for The Sower, one of Millet’s great paintings.) By 1889, there were 125 works by Millet in Boston, and many of them are now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.

The Gleaners is paired with Winslow Homer’s The Brush Harrow. Two child laborers work a dusty field in the half-light at the end of a long, hard day. One boy sits on the harrow, which was used to level the field after it had been plowed. The other boy rides a tired old horse.

The landscape is beautiful but its beauty is as cruel and wasted as the children’s hopeless, lonely lives.

Millet also made a profound impression on Vincent van Gogh, who wrote that in Millet’s paintings,

“There is really nothing but that infinite earth, that green world or corn or heath, that infinite sky. Horses and men seem no larger than fleas. One is not aware of anything; one only knows there is earth and sky.”

Two drawings here of a flat, bleak winter landscape—one by Millet, one by van Gogh—highlight the difference between the two artists. Millet’s line sinks into the landscape; van Gogh’s line lifts off from it. Millet makes you feel that you are really there—standing in that field, feeling the earth beneath your feet, alone with nature. Van Gogh also makes you feel that you’re there, but you’re there with him. You see the landscape through his eyes.

Impressionist artists also learned from Barbizon. A moody, romantic view of a river by Daubigny is paired here with a river landscape made 10 years later by Monet. Daubigny’s painting is pure Barbizon—a sensitive, slightly melancholy landscape—a beautiful bend in the river and a grove of slender, deep green trees. Daubigny’s landscape will never change; it will always look like that and feel like that.

In Monet’s painting, the landscape has dissolved into a flurry of brush-strokes that skim the surface of earth and water, trees and sky. Leaves flutter; the water ripples; clouds drift through the sky. In a moment, a gust of wind will change the shape of everything you see. In Monet’s painting, the modern world has begun. Everything is in flux—changing—dissolving—disappearing—moving on.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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