In the 19th century, America's vast tracts of unspoiled landscape inspired artists like Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) to create spectacular paintings of a virgin land for an enthusiastic public. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the forests and fields of France, which had been thoroughly cultivated for thousands of years, were inspiring a more vivid, if less theatrical, group of artists. Working south of Paris in Fontainebleau, near the village of Barbizon, Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867) communicated a vision of nature far more primal and revealing than his American counterparts.
The Untamed Landscape: Theodore Rousseau and the Path to Barbizon, now on view at the Morgan Library and Museum, presents more than sixty artworks by Rousseau. Showing drawings, along with a few key paintings, the compact exhibition highlights Rousseau’s achievements. Spanning his entire career, the works map out the creative development of an underappreciated artist.
In these animated works on paper, visitors can imagine Rousseau’s sketches coming to life before him. Rousseau’s deep connection to the landscape culminates in a cascade of textures and colors in luminous, richly dark drawings.
Along with Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), Narcisse Diaz de la Peña (1808-1876) and other pre-Impressionist landscape painters, Rousseau began working in the environs of the village of Barbizon in the 1830s, settling there for good in 1847. In Fontainebleau he found a variety of motifs, including a culture of peasant life that had not changed for centuries.
Rousseau did not adopt the classical landscape tradition of Poussin, with its clarity of space and idealized nature. He looked instead to the 17th century Dutch landscape tradition, exemplified by Rembrandt and Ruisdael. This show includes etchings by both Dutch masters.
“Cottages under the Trees, (study for 'Farm in the Landes'),” 1844, is a sketch for a painting now owned by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. The sheet immerses the viewer in the tonal shifts of foliage around the branches and trunk, soaking up light from a luminous tree in the foreground. In this work, the signs of human presence are overwhelmed by “untamed nature,” man-made structures assuming a submissive role.
“Moulin de Batignies, Forest of Compiegne," 1855-1856, speaks directly to the heritage of Rembrandt's drawings, both in its medium (reed pen) and technique. But Rembrandt’s landscape drawings usually allow large areas of sky to circulate in and around the trees and buildings. In fascinating contrast, Rousseau raises the horizon, stretching out the foreground to fill half the page, focusing on shadowed areas of texture built with nervous, aggressive pen strokes, creating space with intense luminosity and shadow.
In “Cottage in Arbonne,” 1860-1865, the cottage has become part of the landscape. This watercolor seems to grow out of an underpainting of brown ink. The cottage is rooted to the earth as clearly as the tree growing out of its roof. A path in the foreground leads the eye back in space to a wall, then filters the eye through lights and darks, warms and cools, shadow and light, until the viewer is completely immersed in the scene.
The painting “Rocky Landscape, Forest of Fontainebleau,” 1835-1840, is remarkable for conjuring the textures of the Barbizon landscape on the surface of the canvas. Defying conventions of spatial representation, Rousseau uses his tactile and emotional responses to the craggy landscape, observed at close range, to transform paint into earth.
Though many of the small oils in this show were done outside, Rousseau made his larger landscape paintings in his studio from sketches, aided by the intensity of his emotional memory. Fine examples of these studio paintings can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum.
For eyes that have become drowsy with photographic clichés, where pictures of the wildest nature have been domesticated, images so routine they lose any sense of a life of their own, Rousseau give us a profound nature, full of shadowy darks and lights, alive and enveloping us.
The Untamed Landscape Théodore Rousseau and the Path to Barbizon, on view through January 18, 2015 at Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, 212-685-0008, www.themorgan.org
More information about Simon Carr's work can be found at www.simoncarrstudio.com