The Barbizon School...what does that really mean?!

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"The painting is Barbizon School..." is a phrase one reads regularly in the art category, here on ebay. But what does that really mean?

What was the 'Barbizon School'? Was it a real, actual place? What period does it relate to? Who were the key members?

This quick guide aims to dispel some of the myths, draw out some facts and hopefully, in a few short paragraphs, answer those questions.

Well, firstly, the name 'Barbizon' relates to an area south of Paris, in France. It is an actual village situated in the Seine et Marne department of France, near the famous Fontainebleau Forest.  It was in that area, that many artists gathered, during the first half and middle of the 19th century, to paint and capture the beauty of the natural landscape and working folk of the area. Those painters became known as part of the 'Barbizon School' and the phrase has stuck since.

Come back with me to the early 19th century for a minute... up till around then, painters had always been restrained to formal artwork. Their subjects were classical, religious, mythological and very serious, to say the least. It was not the done thing for an artist to simply sit in a field, prop up his easel and paint a peasant working the land or ploughing behind oxen. He would not just paint the sunset over a beautiful landscape purely for the pleasure of it, like one might today. It was simply 'not cricket' and very much frowned on.

But like most things, art was evolving and by the 1820's a painter from England, called John Constable, began exhibiting in France views of just that. He painted fields as they actually look - not classical or Biblical subjects. He painted simple, honest country folk working the fields, horses and clouds. He painted nature. And his work began to have moving effects on the French artists who saw his work. They were drawn to capture nature purely for the sake of doing just that.

By the year 1848, political unrest was rife in France and several painters had moved out of Paris and headed to the quiet rural forest in Fontainebleau. It was there that they were able to really expand on Constable's idea of painting nature and capturing real life. One can catch a glimpse here of how the Barbizon painters naturally and seemlessly ran into Impressionism a few decades on...

One famous early Barbizon painting is the famous and well known 'Gleaners' that was painted in 1857. It inspired countless artists to follow his lead and it quite literally changed the course of art... there was no classical meaning behind - no religious connotations. It simply showed honest folk working the land and it was a ground breaking work. 

So, that's a bit about its history and how things came to be... but who were the main players?! Give me names, I hear you cry!

The key leaders of the Barbizon School were: Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Rousseau, Jean-Francois Millet, and Charles-Francois Daubigny; other members included Jules Dupre, Constant Troyon, Charles Jacques, Henri Harpignies, Gabriel-Hippolyte Lebas (1812–1880), Albert Charpin, Felix Ziem and Alexandre Defaux.

Some of the above names are very famous - others less so, or slightly overshadowed by their more sought after colleagues. Corot today remains the biggest name from the Barbizon crowd. His works commanding jumbo sums of cash and being incredibly sought after. But of interest to the collector, many interesting and fascinating genuine Barbizon School works can be picked up by lesser known artists for very low thousands...and unsigned works that are either by Barbizon painters or simply by artists who were around at the same time and inspired by what they were trying to achieve, can be picked up for high hundreds and low thousands.

And that seamlessly leads us back to the beginning. The phrase 'Barbizon School' technically should really apply to those painters who were part of that movement from formalism to realism - capturing nature and real life, approximately between the years of 1830 and 1870. That is what makes a completely thoroughbred, pure bred pedigree Barbizon School painting. But, as we touched on above, there were dozens of painters who were inspired during that period, who never even visited the region or met any of the 'hardcore' Barbizonians but whose works clearly show their influence and inspiration.

Every good movement of art inspires generations of artists for years to come. Impressionism is still today a much used word - despite it originated in France during the 1870's. We will often refer to a style of painting, even one painted yesterday, as "Impressionist" - simply because its style, handling and brushwork shows the influence that began all those years ago. And, it is the same for the Barbizon School... so it is not uncommon to see more 20th century works referred to as such, as their style shows some influence from that School of painting.

Phew. Well, I hope that answers some of your questions on the actual meaning to the term. The real 'Barbizon School' refers to a group of painters who between roughly 1830-1870 congregated in an area south of Paris and painted nature as they saw it. Simple!

It was a natural transition, if you like, between the formal, classical art at the beginning of the 19th century....through to the blurrs and flashes of colour that were to evolve at the end of the 19th century. A lot can happen in a few years...

So, go forth and enjoy hunting around ebay, flea markets, auctions and fairs hopefully a little more armed with knowledge about what the "Barbizon School" really means and refers too.

Thank you.
Cathedral Fine Art
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