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A short history of French art - 5

Naturalism and realism - landscape and life


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French art
Naturalism and realism - landscape and life

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Art in France - : 1820 - 1890


Towards a redefinition of painting


Terminology: In English, the term naturalism is widely used to refer to landscape art painted directly from nature, without idealisation and without moral judgement. In French le naturalisme is used more narrowly to refer to an artistic and literary movement in the later 19th century exemplified in the paintings of Bastien-Lepage and the novels of Zola or Flaubert.

The origins of landscape painting

Pastoral scene
Claude Lorrain - Pastoral scene with classical ruins.  Grenoble - Musée des Beaux Arts
 Landscape has been present in art for many centuries. Back in the early Renaissance, many painters paid great attention to the landscape backgrounds of their religious or historical art; but the landscapes at the time were incidental extras, rarely if ever the main theme of an work of art.
  By the  seventeenth century, as painters began to get more commissions from civil rather than religious patrons, landscape took on an ever increasing importance. Religious orders commissioned art to celebrate saints or tell stories from the scriptures. Civil patrons commissioned art to tell a story, for portraiture, or just for decoration.
   Thus whereas in the past, landscapes had been incidental backgrounds to pictures that told a story, religious, moral or historic, from the 17th century onwards, with some painters such as Claude Lorrain in France, the roles were reversed. With Claude, religious or mythological stories became the incidental pretext for paintings that were essentially landscapes; and indeed in some paintings, the landscape became the topic of the painting itself, not the setting for a story.

   Yet with Claude Lorrain and French landscape artists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, landscape, le paysage, did not mean realism. The landscapes of Claude, or of Poussin or Lancret or Claude-Joseph Vernet, were idealised places, inspired by nature, not painted from nature.  Landscapes were mostly imaginary, and if they were inspired by real places, the places they depicted were often not mentioned.
   This was even the case with the Dutch landscape "genre painters" such as Hobbema or Ruysdael, who specialised in landscape scenes that were close to the lives of people in the Netherlands; sometimes they would paint scenes of places, such as Hobbema's well-known Avenue at Middelharnis; but more often they would paint works entitled "landscape" or "watermill", in which the location, even if painted from life, was not indicated..
Constable - Flatford mill
John Constable - Flatford Mill (Tate Gallery, London). The influence of Constable on French landscape art cannot be underestimated
    It was the Industrial Revolution in Britain that opened the floodgates to landscape art. By the mid 18th century, a new art-buying public was emerging in Britain, the first industrialised nation. Industry created wealth (as well as lots of abject poverty), and the new wealthy and the new middle classes wanted art. And they wanted lots of it. Working in watercolours, English painters of the time, like Cozens and Sandby, inspired many imitators. Unlike classic oil paintings, watercolours could be produced quickly and cheaply, and out in the open, and the fashion caught on. By the end of the 18th century, landscape had become the iconic English genre, whether in watercolour or in oils, and the greatest British artists of the time, John Constable and William Mallord Turner, were gaining international renown. Nowhere was this more so than in France, where some of Constable's landscapes had been on show at the 1824 Paris "Salon".
  And with the new generation of landscape artists, the location was frequently - though by no means always - announced in the title of the painting: Flatford Mill, or Wivenhoe Park, or Petworth House, for example :  real places, not imaginary ones.

Landscape painting in France - the Barbizon school

Rousseau - landscape
Théodore Rousseau - Landscape with trees
  Landscape painting directly from nature developed in France from the 1820s onwards. By 1822, an inn in the village of Barbizon, in the Forest of Fontainebleau, 50 miles south of Paris, was becoming the meeting point for artists looking for their inspiration directly from nature, and painting outdoors, not just in the studio.
   The "Barbizon school" was to dominate French landscape art for half a century, bringing together most of France's finest landscape artists of the mid nineteenth century. Two pioneering artists of the time,  Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet, even moved to live in Barbizon, where they would regularly have visits from Corot, Diaz, Huet and many others. Even artists like Gustave Courbet would put in an appearance from time to time.
  Yet while Courbet was a landscape artist, and one who painted out in the open air, his style was rather different to those of the Barbizon artists.
Corot - Hay cart
Corot : the Hay cart
The Barbizon school was all about painting nature for its own sake, painting it as it was, or (as so often with the classically trained Corot)  through some sort of pale-green-tinted spectacles. Nature could be the setting for human activity, but it was the trees, the lakes, the rivers, the hills, that formed the main subject matter, not the people.

Millet, Courbet and realism

Millet - Gleaners
Jean-François Millet - The gleaners . Paris, Musée d'Orsay

Courbet - the stone breakers
Gustave Courbet - the Stone breakers. Courbet shows the reality of working life, against the backdrop of a scene from his native Jura mountains.
   Millet and Courbet, in particular,  took a different approach. Whereas the Barbizon painters were essentially naturalists in the broad sense of the term, Millet and Courbet saw themselves as Realists,  the term used by Courbet to define his work in the introduction to an 1855 exhibition in Paris.
  As landscape artists they would often put nature - cliffs, stags, waterfalls -  at the heart of their works. Indeed, both Courbet and Millet painted landscapes without any human activity; but even in paintings without any human figures, there is no idealising of nature. It is real, and sometimes dark and menacing.
  After all, at a time when the large majority of the population of France still lived a rural life and tilled the land, nature, the outdoors, was primarily a workplace, not a place for leisure. Life was outdoors, so was death, as in Courbet's iconic open-air Burial at Ornans; and in his portrayal of human life and death, as in other ways, Courbet was a revolutionary.

   Landscape naturalism and realism were part of the same continuum, and there was no clear-cut dividing line between them. Indeed the terms are regularly confused; yet the Realists, most importantly Courbet, Millet and Honoré Daumier, were not just landscape artists. Even if Millet's masterpieces les Glaneuses (the Gleaners) or l'Angélus, as many of Courbet's greatest works, use the landscape as a background, the Realists were more than just landscape genre painters. Their range of subject matter was far wider.
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   Courbet's 1855 Realist manifesto did not go down well in all quarters, quite the contrary. In the mid 19th century, the majority of French artists were still painting according to the canons of academic art, in styles that idealised both humans and scenery. The struggle between classicism and romanticism
Manet - game of croquet
Edouard Manet - The game of croquet - Stadel Museum, Frankfurt. The dark landscape background has echos of the Barbizon school; but the brushwork is Impressionist
was still dominating the world of French art, and the landscape painters and new Realists were still a sideshow. Even the great art critics of the time, Baudelaire and Gautier, found it hard to go along with Courbet's revolutionary break with tradition; and even if they both recognised Courbet as a talented artist, neither could quite come to appreciate the way in which realism could show ugliness and blemishes for what they were.
    Yet others could. A young up and coming realist who greatly admired Courbet, was Edouard Manet. Best known today as one of the Impressionists, Manet was more exactly a realist who was greatly admired by the younger Impressionists, but never actually exhibited in the Impressionist exhibitions
    Through this lineage, Courbet and Manet have come to be recognised as the founding fathers of modern art.
   

   Many French 19th century artists were prolific producers - Courbet and Corot among them - and most provincial museums in France have a representative display of art from this period. Major works by Courbet are on display in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Besançon, and nearby in the Courbet Museum in Ornans, the small town in Franche-Comté where he was born.
  The finest overall collection of French naturalist and realist art can be seen in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris,.
 
   

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The new art - 1820 - 1890
While most French artists of the time remained academic and strugged with the conflict between classicsm and romanticism,  some were breaking away from the traditional constraints, taking art out of the studio and into the open air. Landscape art had reached France, and out of French landscape art grew something even more important for the subsequent history of art, not just in France but worldwide. Realism


Salomon Ruysdael
17th century Dutch landscape genre painting.
From a painting by Salomon van Ruysdael


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Narcisse Diaz - windmill
The old windmill near Barbizon - by Narcisse Diaz de la Peña

Daumier - man on a donkey
Man on a donkey - by Honoré Daumier


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