Newly Bought Book about Barbizon and Tonalism

This morning I was complaining about the release date of the new book “A History of American Tonalism,1880-1920” by David Cleveland, which was pushed to November from May, then I spotted a unique book about Barbizon school from the Brooklyn Museum Gift Shop in the afternoon. What a coincidence! It was in the special discount section with every catalog marked for $9.95. The cover –  a painting by Millet caught my eyes, but soon I found out curiously the title was in Japanese.

“Barbizon Mood in France and America — European and American Paintings from the Brooklyn Museum of Art” was a catalog for a traveling exhibition at six different cities in Japan in 1998. (The museum has changed its name to Brooklyn Museum since 2004.) Although I actually have been to four out of six cities (Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka), mentioned in the catalog, I didn’t visit any art museum when I worked in Japan. I would not imagine that there is a large population in Japan who are ready to appreciate the sombre dark-toned rural scenes as much as the bright high-keyed impressionism. But such a publication is certainly helpful to gain insight into the vast collection of the museum.

This version of the book is written for Japanese and English readers. From the book, I have learned that  the first Barbizon “French painters to win the greatest favor from the Japanese audience were Millet and Corot.” During the turn of the century, Millet’s art was introduced from the art magazine and book translated from the book published in US (“The Painter of Angelus: Jean-François Millet”). For westerners, it may be somewhat unintuitive to see the rise of some school or certain painters in a foreign country where no actual works were available for study; but Meiji Era (1868-1912) was a period of confluence of western art with Japanese art. Millet’s paintings, in particular, are more graphic and fluent. The  narrative figures, which are usually slightly off-center, takes much of the space, thus to some degree echoing Japanese aesthetics.

It is interesting to think the artistic influence were going reciprocally. When American were intrigued by the imported colored woodcut, Japanese, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, were equally eager to absorb and embrace the new imported style. In David Cleveland’ book “Intimate Landscapes: Charles Warren Eaton and the Tonalist Movement“, he pointed out the tight cropping of the white pine trees reflects the influence of oriental art flourished at the end of the century. Another interesting observation is that Charles Lang Freer, the important collectors for a group of tonal-based artists such as Thomas Dewing and Dwight William Tryon, was also an avid collector of (or should I say is more famously known for collecting) Asian arts. In both arts, I have found the common characteristics that bridges the geographic distance: the suggestive quality which breaks away from detailed rendering of nature and the meditative spirituality that harmonize  human with the nature.

Although the title calls for Barbizon, painters such as Daniel Ridgway Knight, James McDougal Hart and Albert Pinkham Ryder were also included in the exhibition. I would argue Hart and Ryder shared some common ground with tonalism and the Barbizon school, yet Knight’s polished “The Shepherdess of Rolleboise” would make Millet’s peasants look impoverished suffering souls. How to define the scope of American Barbizon and Tonalism and who should be included is one thing that I would love to read and solve from the upcoming book by Cleveland.

Lastly, because the book is intended for international market, I couldn’t find an ISBN nor could I find similar items on Amazon or Alibris. Moreover, the majority of the paintings listed in the catalog are not currently hung in the gallery. (In the book I have seen a wonderful picture by John Francis Murphy, Henry Ward Ranger and a different painting by Ryder) For those who love the Barbizon school, or the Brooklyn Museum or those who like to collect rare books (the Japanese version of the same book can be found from Google Books with no price or library associated with it for American readers), $10  for a beautiful book is a great deal.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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