Not to be confused with Paths to Impressionism, a recent show at the Newark Museum of Art, The Road to Impressionism opened today at The Frick in Pittsburgh and features Barbizon paintings from Baltimore’s Walters Art Gallery. Also in the show is the rarely displayed collection of works on paper by Millet, which are part of the collection at The Frick.
It was by chance I was in Pittsburgh on the first day of the show. It was also helpful that I was able to see the Newark show around the same time. I had the American Barbizon paintings fresh in my mind as I wandered the French countryside on the walls of the Pittsburgh museum.
The relationship between the French and American Barbizon was brought into the discussion during a guided tour when Hui asked a question related to the treatment of the human figure, particularly peasants in French and American works. The tour guide responded relating American Barbizon to the Hudson River School saying that American painters preferred to focus on glorifying the landscape. I almost injected the simpler answer “because there are no peasants in America!”
My favorite works in the show didn’t include human figures, however. The Forest of Fountainebleau, Autumn by Diaz La Peña recalled works by George Inness, except I think Inness is more restrained in his use of color. Diaz mixed greens and other colors into the trunk of a tree. Painted in the 1870s, I wondered if it was completed near the end of his life, as it shows a dying tree still sprouting new green branches. My favorite Barbizon works often don’t include figures, and Diaz is a good example of this, and probably the result of the figures he included are generally allegorical and not well suited to conveying mood. I find his forest scenes, deviod of human life, much more enticing.
A Bright Day by Jules Dupré also absorbed me for a good portion of my time there. It’s a warm painting, using the light, trees and cows, just to convey the mood of the day. Dupré spent time in England, and certainly Constable might see some familiarities in it, although if anything at the show recalled Constable, it was this painting by Theodore Rousseau. If Dupré were an American, A Bright Day would be a California landscape.
Another Walters work, The Storm by La Peña uses a figure in the way Innes might, dark and mysterious, crossing the landscape.
Paintings by Barbizon artists were highly sought after by American collectors like Henry Clay Frick and William Walters, who, in their Gilded Age mansions, could experience the reverence for the countryside as espoused by Rousseau, who “heard the voices of the trees and wanted to put his finger on the secret of their majesty.”
Some Barbizon paintings can be seen adorning the walls in Clayton, Frick’s mansion a few steps from the museum. American Barbizon paintings in a period setting can be viewed at Newark’s Ballentine House. It was who initially Hui commented that the Dupré painting could as easily be a California landscape. After visiting the show at the Frick, don’t be fooled into thinking good Barbizon paintings can’t come from outside of France. Like wine, it’s for sure they can. It could be America that brought an end to Barbizon, however. Without the American invention of the paint tube, we may never have arrived at Impressionism.