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The lure of Barbizon: European art colonies in the 19th century

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Small mosaics mark the spots where some of the most celebrated Barbizon artists painted. It was here that George Gassies painted ‘La Maison de Rousseau’ (photo © hidden europe).


The nineteenth century saw big changes in European artists’ relationships with landscape. A new network of art villages (or artist colonies) developed. Places like Barbizon, Worpswede, Pont-Aven and Newlyn were quickly inscribed on the European cultural imagination.

If there is one thing we have learned in the COVID interregnum, it is the importance of fresh air. We have shifted our patterns of activity, a chat in a meadow eclipsing the conviviality of the pub, an afternoon in the forest with friends now more favoured than an evening at the card table.

In this, we unconsciously make common cause with dozens of 19th-century artists from Millet to Monet, from Alfred Sisley to Stanhope Forbes, who needed no convincing that outdoors was definitely better than indoors.

En plein air was the rallying call as artists forsook their studios and moved out into the landscape, recasting the dominant mode of professional practice. While in the studio work was studied and a single painting could take weeks, the new techniques of the open air emphasised speed and agility.

In a celebrated treatise published at the very start of the 19th century, the French artist Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes urged his professional colleagues to sharpen their observational skills and get each job completed much more quickly. The transience of atmospheric effects demanded the three-hour painting; open-air painters could not afford the luxury of multiple sittings.

De Valenciennes’ Élémens de perspective pratique set out a series of prescripts that these days we associate with the Impressionists, a movement which developed only in the last quarter of the 19th century. But de Valenciennes was writing very much earlier. When de Valencienne’s book appeared in 1800, his ideas were revolutionary, nudging artists to no longer just paint idealised Italianate landscapes in their studios, but rather to spend more time in the open air keenly observing the intimate details of landscapes in those regions of Europe where they lived and worked. As de Valenciennes’ ideas gained currency in a Europe recovering from the restrictions of the Napoleonic Wars, the stage was set for an extraordinary social and creative movement which was to profoundly affect artistic professional practice, one which finds expression both in the artistic legacy of that period and in modern European tourism.

Rethinking artistic practice

Within a relatively brief period, now that the primacy of neoclassical landscapes had been questioned, a network of art villages (or art colonies) developed across northern Europe, all of these communities with their own artistic style (or styles) and character, each one championing and celebrating the landscapes of their immediate region. Places like Barbizon, Worpswede, Pont- Aven and Newlyn were quickly inscribed on the European cultural imagination. These, and dozens of similar communities, became focal points for journeys by painters and those who affected an interest in cultural trends. In 1910, the Vienna-based journalist and critic Ludwig Hevesi described Barbizon as “one of the most famous villages in the world.”

Within a relatively brief period, now that the primacy of neoclassical landscapes had been questioned, a network of art villages (or art colonies) developed across northern Europe.

No longer did the artist of the cool and cloudy north need to make a professional pilgrimage to Italy; she or he could find inspiration closer to home, whether in the forests of Fontainebleau, in the heathlands of Lower Saxony or in small coastal communities in Cornwall or North Jutland. So the very production of art shifted from being an urban to a rural endeavour, paving the way for the notion of the artist residency in a rural setting. It’s an idea which still profoundly affects the pattern of residencies today, where forest, lakeshore or other picturesque settings are greatly prized — to wit, the Cove Park centre in an outstanding location overlooking Loch Long in western Scotland or the residencies for women artists sponsored by German sculptor Franziska Seifert on the beautifully located Schwanenwerder Island on Berlin’s Wannsee.

Across northern France and Germany, in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Britain and beyond, a great network of artists’ colonies developed in the 1830s and following decades. Places like Barbizon, in the Fontainebleau forest south of Paris, were to dramatically affect the development of European art. Working en plain air restored spontaneity to art and required not just speed and observational skill but also new techniques. No longer could artists wait for each layer of paint to dry before continuing with their work, so a new wet-on-wet approach was needed. And the new naturalistic piety required that the painting of a storm meant braving the storm.

There is a memorable photograph of Stanhope Forbes, one of the founding members of the Newlyn art colony (which was very much later than pioneering Barbizon), painting on a beach in atrocious weather, his canvas and easel secured by guy ropes. Immersion in landscape was suddenly in vogue as artists dived into the forest and painted details of undergrowth. In a trend called sous-bois, the traditional sweeping view of landscape was replaced by more intimate views of forest detail, often rendered in portrait format.

These dramatic changes in artistic practice in northern Europe did not go unnoticed south of the Alps. In Tuscany from the mid-1850s, the Macchiaioli scorned the conventions of the influential art academies, leaving their studios and embracing en plain air techniques. By day they roamed with their easels, capturing the contours and shadows of the Tuscan landscape, returning in the evening to Florence to meet at the Caffè Michelangiolo to discuss art and politics, taking time to comment on the sketches made during the day.

Such convivial evening gatherings were a central part of the daily routine of the art colonies of northern Europe. In Barbizon, for example, the resident artists at the Auberge Ganne would return from a day out painting in the forests of Fontainebleau or the fields west of the village and swap notes on each other’s work. Gentle critique morphed into relaxation with games of boule before dinner, and wine-fuelled conversation that sometimes lasted late into the night. It was a pattern replicated in Worpswede, Pont-Aven and more widely, with social life in the colony focused on a handful of hostelries.

Location of Barbizon south-east of Paris on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau.

Landscape assets

Barbizon’s status as a premier-league artists’ colony in the 19th century feeds through to the present. The village is still a crowd-puller. The former Auberge Ganne, much smartened up these days, now houses an excellent small museum that recalls the time when this inn, along with other similar inns in the village, hosted some of the most adventurous painters of the day.

But why Barbizon? The French artist Amédée Servin captured its appeal nicely in a letter to fellow artist Georges Gassies: “It is in the forest of Fontainebleau, in the most admirable location, we smoke pipes under the tall oaks and we paint colourful boulders; you will see how beautiful it is.”

Immersion in landscape was suddenly in vogue as artists dived into the forest and painted details of undergrowth.

Gassies did indeed go to Barbizon, as did so many others: Jean-François Millet, Théodore Rousseau, Charles-François Daubigny, Camille Corot and dozens more. What Amédée Servin omitted to mention in that note to Gassies was that Barbizon was uniquely well placed, being so close to some of the most dramatic landscapes of the Fontainebleau forest while also being within walking distance of the farming communities of the open plain. Artists encumbered with easels, canvases and umbrellas wanted to get to work early to catchthe best of the morning light; they did not want long walks before getting started.

Barbizon was within striking distance of great ancient oak woodlands, heathlands, gorges, rocky outcrops and well worked farmland in a way that no other village around Paris could offer. What’s more, 19thcentury Barbizon had a good range of traditional farm buildings and enclosed courtyards, none of them quaint or exceptional, but they provided a range of intimate settings where artists could work on wet days.

The core appeal was initially the extraordinary geomorphology and vegetation of the forest of Fontainebleau, but interestingly it is some of the paintings from the plain which have become most emblematic of the Barbizon School. None more so than Millet’s The Angelus, which depicts a prayerful midday interlude as a couple working on the potato harvest pause to recite the Angelus. Millet made the initial sketches for The Angelus in the fields just north of Barbizon village.

Developing a brand

The Angelus has been embraced by Barbizon as part of the village brand. The butcher, the local estate agent and a small art gallery are all named after Millet’s painting, so reminding visitors that the appeal of Barbizon is not rooted solely in the remarkable landscapes of the forest with its eerie rocks and wooded glades. Though these days visitors to Barbizon are inevitably drawn towards the forest, so easily accessed at the east end of the village and generally perceived as being so much more interesting than the dusty slumber of the plain.

A bas-relief bronze memorial, set into a huge chunk of natural Fontainebleau sandstone, depicts Millet and Rousseau looking seriously into the distance. Families picnic and play hide-and-seek among the rocks, while art students walk purposefully through the forest in search of the very spots depicted in some of the most treasured paintings from the Barbizon School: George Gassies’ remarkable forest sunsets, Camille Corot’s boulders, the forest edge where David Sutter chanced upon some woodcutters, and François Ortmans’ grisly tree-trunks.

Few places have been so subject to myth making as the forest landscapes just east of Barbizon village — though the same is to some extent true of the immediate surroundings of many of the former artists’ colonies scattered across northern Europe. The Swedish artist Carl Olof Petersen was a regular visitor to the art community of Dachau in Bavaria. Petersen remarked on how a particular redroofed house (called the Moosschwaige) by a canal and a clump of poplars was so popular a subject for Dachau artists that there were morning queues to secure plum spots for easel and mandatory umbrella. And, even though many artists looked beyond that set-piece scene, the Moosschwaige image helped define Dachau art.

In northern Germany, the Worpswede heathland and misty scenes of drainage canals exerted similar appeal, just as a cluster of riverside buildings at Pont-Aven were propelled to prominence by resident artists.

Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in Barbizon when it was already declining. Millet died in January 1875, and Corot died just a month later. But Stevenson, who stayed in the village more than once, reflected how “we left something of our souls there in the forests of Fontainebleau.” With his words, and similar comments by generations of later visitors, Barbizon developed a very strong place myth, backed up by an imaginative geography that taps into European artistic tradition while also showcasing some very fine landscapes.

On the Grande Rue

These are not matters which are uppermost in the minds of locals who gather in the early morning sunshine on a late summer day at Le Royal — a brasserie and bar on Barbizon’s main street. It is the perfect spot for a coffee and croissant, nicely situated not far from the one-time homes of Jean- François Millet and Théodore Rousseau, just two of the many artists over whom Barbizon cast such a spell that they actually moved to live in the village.

There is general agreement in Le Royal that it is a most agreeable morning. And there is that sense of comfortable well-being which comes from living in what is surely one of the most desirable spots in the Paris hinterland. But such spells are easily broken. Two young women with rucksacks pause by the front of the café and ask if anyone can direct them to the Barbizon house where Leon Trotsky lived. There is a general look of apprehension amid the clientele at Le Royal. For, like so many of the 19th-century art colonies around Europe, this is a village which prefers to define itself by art rather than politics.


Barbizon details

hidden europe visited Barbizon in late summer 2021. We stayed at the Les Pléiades Hotel on Grande Rue (which is the main street). It was art that took us to Barbizon, but we were also intrigued by the Trotsky connection. It was remarkably difficult to find anyone in Barbizon who would admit to knowing that Trotsky lived in the Villa Ker Monique on the chemin du Bomage for six months from autumn 1933.

Barbizon really is a lovely spot, perfectly positioned for walks into the forêt de Fontainebleau or across the plaine de Bière. The former Auberge Ganne, now a municipal museum showcasing the Barbizon artists, is well worth a visit. It is open all year round, but remains closed on Tuesdays. Barbizon pulls a lot of day visitors from Paris at weekends, so follow our example and plan a midweek stay. For all its proximity to the French capital, the area around Barbizon has real rural charm. There are excellent cycle rides both east through the forest and west across the plain, where the village of Fleury-en-Bière is exceptionally attractive.

Barbizon details Barbizon is located about 50 kilometres south-east of Paris. The nearest railway stations, both with direct trains from Paris, are at Melun and Fontainebleau. Bus number 9 runs from Melun station to Barbizon, taking 30 minutes for the journey. Bus route 21 gives a useful link from Fontainebleau to Barbizon, also taking about half an hour for the journey. Neither bus runs on Sundays. During the week, though, it would be very easy to make day trips by public transport from Barbizon into the centre of Paris.

For more about the art history themes touched on in this feature, take a look at Nina Lübbren’s wonderful book Rural Artists’ Colonies in Europe 1870–1910. Barbizon was of course an early example of such a colony, and so the early days of Barbizon predate the temporal focus of Lübbren’s account.

Other former art colonies which repay a visit are Worpswede (in northern Germany), Skagen (in North Jutland), Volendam (in Holland on the IJsselmeer)and Nida (on the Curonian Spit in Lithuania).

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