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Petite mais bon: Jean-Francois Millet’s Woman with a Rake.

Making an Impression
By David Brickman

French Painters of Nature: the Barbizon School
Landscapes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The New York State Museum, through Aug.22

It’s almost summer and, artwise, that can only mean one thing in the Capital Region: The blockbuster shows are here.

Now, if you fell asleep 20 years ago and just woke up, you’re probably scratching your head and thinking, “Blockbuster art shows? In the Capital Region?” But it’s true—for years now the major museums hereabouts have been lining up crowd-pleasing, turnstile-spinning summer shows (presumably for the summer visitors), and we year-rounders are among the happy beneficiaries.

The Rip Van Winkles among us may also be surprised to learn that the leader in this renaissance has been the New York State Museum, whose Fleet Great Art Series of classy, challenging imports from New York City’s top museums has reached installment No. 12: French Painters of Nature: the Barbizon School, Landscapes from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And it is outstanding.

Comprising about 70 oil paintings, drawings and prints by a core group of seven artists, French Painters of Nature provides a wonderful complement to The Course of Empire: Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School Landscape Tradition, one of last year’s Fleet shows at the NYSM.

Exact contemporaries of Cole, et al., top dogs Théodore Rousseau, Camille Corot, Jean François Millet and Charles-François Daubigny, along with their slightly lesser cohorts Henri-Joseph Harpignies, Constant Troyon and Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, mirrored the 19th-century back-to-nature movement that the Hudson River painters also pioneered, and spearheaded a reaction to the outdated dominant aesthetic of the Paris Salon that paved the way for impressionism and all the modern-art movements that followed.

While this show provides an excellent history lesson, with healthy selections of work from each artist and crisp, concise exhibit labels and wall panels (credit the Met’s associate curator Dita Amory for her superbly readable writing), it is also a huge pleasure to take in visually—so long as you’re willing to put in the energy to immerse yourself in the riches offered. This is not a show for strolling past—do that, and you’ve wasted the visit—but for savoring one work at a time. Fortunately, its three-month run will allow multiple viewings for those with tight schedules (or short attention spans).

Briefly explained, the Barbizon School takes its name from a rural village southeast of Paris where this group of somewhat- outsider painters gathered to explore and depict the nearby Forest of Fontainebleau. While the Salon expressly required painters to create studio-based academic art (or suffer rejection), this group’s rallying cry, as expressed by Corot, was, “No man should become an artist who is not passionate about nature.” And so they introduced landscape painting for the first time as an end in itself.

It seems an obvious approach when considered from a 21st-century perspective—but at the time it was considered radical. The plein air movement, characterized by refreshing trips to Rome to paint and draw the ancient ruins on-site under the warm Italian sun, spawned the Barbizon group, who rightly thought there was no reason not to do the same in their own back yard. An interesting side note is that this sudden intimacy with nature sparked an early version of our own contemporary environmental movement (a large Rousseau painting on view was expressly created to protest clearcutting of the forest) and so it has particular relevance to present-day issues—even outside the art context. As it happens, much of what is depicted in these works, like those of the Hudson River School, is hardly pure nature; rather, it is often a domesticated version of nature as it coexists with man the farmer. However, this brings on another radical aspect of the movement, in that it came to focus on and empathize with hardworking peasants, especially in the work of Millet (famous for his many versions of The Gleaners, a fine etching of which is included here). Again, the Barbizon painters broke rules-this time social conventions-by presenting workers in a clear-eyed (i.e., not overly romanticized) manner, which also laid the groundwork for future art movements.

Natural beauty: Theodore Rousseau’s A Meadow Bordered by Trees.

Visually, the drawings, prints and paintings are sumptuous. With consummate skill, these artists captured light and detail as taken directly from the subjects. It is a joy to get in close, for example, to a Rousseau drawing in ink and wash and just revel in the calligraphic marks he employed to render grass, bushes and trees. His abilities increase by the decade, as shown by the progression of four drawings starting in 1842 and ending in 1860.

Then, viewing Rousseau’s masterful 1860 oil painting on wood, simply titled Landscape, you see his brilliant use of color, as a tiny red-skirted figure draws your eye to the focal point of the 15-by-22-inch scene, deceptively dark in the foreground but illuminated by an almost inner glow along a strip of water seen through trees. The pastoral serenity of such a scene must have been a revelation to city-bound Parisians; its celebration of light has universal appeal.

Light is the energizing feature of many of the works in this show. Daubigny captures it exceptionally well in all five paintings included, but none better than the 1872 Landscape with Ducks (with orange-tinged sunset) and 1873 Apple Blossoms, both of which are clear instances of early impressionism.

Daubigny is also represented by several cliché-verre prints, which are made by scratching an image into an emulsion coated on a glass plate and then printing the plate onto photographic paper. These 1921 editions of 1862 sketches are as sharp and expressive as any of the etchings or lithographs by other artists in the show, revealing a little-known but quite valuable method.

Among the show’s other highlights are several pieces by Corot, including an ethereal river scene, Ville-d’Avray (aptly described on the label as a “dreamy poetic landscape”); a muscular, color oil study on paper of a group of small oak trees, which is shown on the label to have been the basis for part of a major studio painting; and a very small, intense, black chalk drawing called Landscape in a Storm.

Equally impressive are the works by Millet, particularly the smallish but still somehow monumental oil Woman with a Rake; the harder-hitting Women Carrying Faggots, a drawing that depicts the reality of hard work in deep grays and blues; and the aforementioned Gleaners.

Harpignies, who died in 1916 at the age of 97, far outliving his contemporaries, had a knack for strong color, particularly in his vividly detailed watercolors. His personal history of being born into wealth and enjoying several decades of success at the Paris Salon contrasts significantly with others represented here. Diaz de la Peña, for example, was born to a pair of Spanish refugees and orphaned in his teens; yet he, too, became a very popular painter (and Rousseau’s closest disciple). Daubigny, born into a family of painters, became an early supporter of many Impressionists, urging the Salon to accept their works. Millet lived much like the peasants he depicted, raising nine children with his wife in their cottage at the edge of Fontainebleau, but never lost his passion to create, despite the rustic circumstances.

What brought them all together was a shared vision, a love of the outdoors and an iconoclasm that, in itself, makes them the rightful fathers of modern art. If you love Van Gogh, Gauguin and Monet, don’t miss this opportunity to study and enjoy the work that, in essence, made theirs possible.


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