The 19th-Century French Artists in Search of Truth and Beauty in Rural Life

The importance of the Barbizon School of painters

Christopher P Jones
7 min readFeb 15, 2024

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The Angelus (1857–1859) by Jean-François Millet. Oil on canvas. 55.5 × 66 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The emergence of the French Impressionist painters of the 1870s didn’t come from out of nowhere.

The Paris-based conjurors of light found a new mode of making paintings that constituted a break with the traditions of European painting, yet they owed many of their practices to an earlier school.

An important precursor and a cited influence on artists like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir was the circle of painters known as the Barbizon School.

In the middle of the 19th century, this group of French artists set up home in the village of Barbizon in the Fontainebleau forest, some forty miles southeast of Paris, and set about forging a new relationship with nature around them. They made paintings of landscape scenes and rural life, with especial attention given to naturalistic lighting effects.

The difference with the work of the Barbizon School was not of a new relationship with light as such — as the Impressionists would later forge — but a new desire to evoke in paint the first impression of a scene made upon the senses.

It was a push against the mannered styles of the academic tradition, in search of an art form that expressed a direct encounter with their subject, where the motif was stripped of any pre-established “rules” of painting.

Beginnings & Influences

The beginnings of the Barbizon School can be traced back to the 1824 Salon de Paris in which the English painter John Constable exhibited three paintings and was praised by several prominent French artists of the time, including Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix.

The Hay Wain (1821) by John Constable. Oil on canvas. 130.2 × 185.4 cm. The National Gallery, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Constable was admired for his unique approach to making art, which turned away from the tradition of copying from old paintings and instead used unmediated studies of nature as his primary source.

The originality of Constable’s technique would have a pronounced influence on the…

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