The first art exhibition I ever attend was one dedicated to the French mid-19th century Barbizon landscape painters at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum on the campus of Rollins College near Orlando. The year was 2018. Remember, I am a latecomer to art, only picking up the passion around the time I turned 40 as my interest in sports – which had consumed the previous 20+ years of my personal and professional life to – was coming to a close.
My wife and I took the 175-mile both ways daytrip from our home on Amelia Island in northeast Florida solely to see art. It was the first time we’d ever done such a thing. The first of many to come.
The Barbizon artists preceded the Impressionists. Following Western art, the next art genre which sparked my enthusiasm was Impressionism. I adored – and continue to adore – the color, the breeziness, the landscapes – whether basked in sun or covered in snow – the “impression” of what was seen, not the detailed reality. Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, I attached immediately to the imagery and what they were trying to say.
Barbizon is a small village on the southern outskirts of Paris. An artist’s community developed there devoted to portraying the forested landscape, primarily from nature. That doesn’t sound all that groundbreaking today, but remember, in mid-19th century France, landscapes as an artistic genre were tantamount in the artistic hierarchy to reality TV. This was still the height of the French academy and “salon.” Neoclassicism remained in vogue. History paintings, religious scenes, mythology were the subjects the top artists focused on, followed by portraiture. Landscapes were for Sunday painters, and prior to the innovation of paint in tubes, easy train travel and painting kits allowing artists to easily go into the field to work, painting en plein air was something of a gimmick.
The Barbizon painters began changing all of that, cracking the door for the Impressionists – who trained with them, studied them, and immediately followed them in art history – to smash the door down and utterly revolutionize painting forever more.
The leading Barbizon painter was Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875), a delightful example of whose hangs in the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida.
A Stream Beneath the Trees, completed somewhere between 1864 and 1875, is far from the biggest painting in the museum. Its size measures roughly that of a large shoebox top. It’s certainly not the most colorful. The bold, vibrant colors the Impressionists, Modernists and today’s painters take advantage of were not invented them. The painting, however, is not as dark as many of his. That darkness of palette a defining characteristic of the Barbizon School.
This quiet pastoral scene, a mother and child about their daily routine, is, however, a classic example of later Barbizon painting. It features nature, loosely painted. The figures are contemporary, not historical subjects, For the time, it would have been considered strikingly modern.
It’s a gem, and representative of an important building block in art history not to be missed on your next visit to the Cummer Museum.