In reading the book “American Art In the Barbizon Mood,” I am surprised to find out American Barbizon school is yet to be defined even though the exhibition was held in Washington DC more than 30 years ago. Tonalism is in general used to define the same school, although tonalism itself is such a very vague term that when Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco had the exhibition of American Tonalism paintings, the show featured the painters Whistler and Dewing along side with Tryon and Eaton.
It is not a surprise that such a term as American Barbizon is not firm since the school itself did not last very long. To some extent, it serves as a bridge between the Hudson River School style and American Impressionism. The early works of Inness bear strong influence from Cole and Durand. It was only after the American Civil War that Inness began to forgo the niggling detail that once dominated the large canvases. Later, when Henry Ward Ranger came to Old Lyme to build up his colony, he found out that although he could attract a group of like-minded painters, he could not stop the trend. The Old Lyme sees the rise of Impressionism from Willard Metcalf and Theodore Robinson, both of whom were Old Lyme painters.
But most of all, it is the American Barbizon itself that somewhat distorted, if not betrayed the group of painters that it represented. True, some of them may have seen the silvery grayness of Corot or solemnity of Millet even though it was very rare to see these works within US before the civil war. Some of the painters such as Inness and Robert Crannell Minor even went to Europe for study, however most of these painters grew by themselves and may develop their artistic styles in their own course. To say they are the followers of Corot was more a critic’s idea and dealers’ promotion than their own intention.
And what a difference it makes when the so-called Barbizon school crossed the Atlantic! For Millet, the rural life bears the same amount of the sentimentality and elegance as the perfect male and female bodies in the hands of David and Ingres. But for Americans painters, there was no such passion found from mundane peasantry life. How could they, right after the civil war, when farming was still associated with the south and black labor. Thus in William Morris Hunt, there was a broader subject matters that associated with the general pastoral life without giving out the hint of laborious farming.
Barbara Novak, in her book about Hudson River School paintings, said that the grand scaled, untainted landscape is god’s gift to Americans and thus the vistas with magic light show the audience the new continent in the way God perceives it. If so, such notion began to shake in the minds of American who had gone through civil war and Darwinism. The rapid industrialization in post-civil war period saw fast change in Northeast landscape. God’s garden was no long viewed as American’s superiority against the European’s old civilization; instead it gave in for railroad, farming and bourgeoisification. Thus, it was natural that a group of artists began to view the landscape in a more nostalgic mood. Instead of looking down at the grandeur with a dominating control of details and free of any trace of human brush touch, they began to walk into the woods and experience them as human beings. The cool objective mind softened to the stirred emotions that had been constantly worried about the erosion of the landscape from industrialization. Visible strokes were implemented to enhance the live experience as if the landscape breathed its texture into the canvas.
When John Francis Murphy was praised as American Corot in the late 1870’s, he quietly saved those reviews about him but said little. He may have seen some paintings by French Barbizon painters, but the Mecca of Barbizon paintings in US at that time was not in New York but in Boston where Vose Gallery fervently promoted the school. But Murphy didn’t have to speak out for the inspiration of his style: He just lived with it. He took the occasion to visit Walden Pond and transplanted pine seedlings from Thoreau’s cabin to his Arkville Studio.
There, right by the pond, Thoreau already dictated what would be painted after his death by the painters of the next generation:
The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description. … a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation.