In the nineteenth century, landscape paintings were a very prominent genre of art throughout Europe. Barbizon painters would wander deep into the forest to capture the beauty of trees, animals, mountains, and the overall essence of nature. These compositions were considered pure landscapes because nature was the only subject matter. However, pure landscapes were not always well received. From the first until the nineteenth century, the simple beauty of nature was not considered acceptable as the only focus of a painting. Critics claimed that landscapes had no power over morals and were therefore useless. Spectators wanted art to tell a story and portray an idea. A hierarchy for painting was developed, giving historical painting the most respect and landscape painting the least. This distaste for landscapes, however, weakened over time.
In the seventeenth century landscapes were often painted, but they were only accepted as settings for historical events. Many artists used landscapes to portray battles, or Biblical stories. Although the subject matter of historical landscapes was usually people, the artists of these paintings put much of their focus on the setting of the scene.
It was not until the nineteenth century that nature was accepted as sufficient subject matter. In the early 1800’s a few painters began to recognize the awe of nature and became the pioneers of pure landscape paintings. More painters caught on, and a group of them eventually formed the Barbizon school, which focused on landscapes.
Nicolas Poussin, Hagar and the Angel, ca 1660
Oil on canvas, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica - Palazzo Barberini
Before pure landscapes were publicly accepted, artists often used landscapes as the setting for Biblical stories. Christians enjoyed the educational aspect that these paintings contained. This painting, for example, depicts Hagar and an angel who promises that Hagar will be the mother of a powerful nation. The artist fittingly uses landscape to parallel the fact that Hagar was fleeing through the wilderness in the original narrative. Although Poussin uses Hagar and the angel as subject matter rather than the landscape itself, he does place the figures on the left side of the composition which leaves space for the viewer to focus on a giant bush and cliff.
Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia, 1682
Oil on canvas, Ashmolean Museum WA1926.1
Landscapes were also used as the settings for fictional stories. Although many of the depicted stories never actually happened, these paintings still served an educational purpose. Viewers enjoyed visual representations of great works of literature. This painting depicts a scene in Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, in which Ascanius shoots Silvia's pet stag. Lorrain strategically places Ascanius and the stag on opposite sides of the composition, shifting the focus onto the rich terrain as the viewer follows the path of Ascanius’s arrow across the canvas.
Pierre Henri de Valenciennes, Waterfalls at Terni, 1788
Oil on paper, 2009.400.119
Over time, artists started using nature for their subject matter. Valenciennes elevates this waterfall at Terni by claiming that, because of its power, it is enough to capture the viewer’s attention; historical context is not needed. Although Valenciennes used these falls as the subject of the painting, he rarely painted pure landscapes due to their lack of appreciation. His specialty was painting historical landscapes. He started an art school called Paysage Historique, which is French for “historical landscapes.” Here, he trained others the art of painting historical landscapes. The work of Valenciennes led to the establishment of a historical landscapes category in the Prix de Rome, a French scholarship for artists. Although the academy still did not accept pure landscapes, this prize caused many painters to focus on landscapes.
Achille-Etna Michallon, Waterfall at Mont-Dore, 1818
Oil on canvas, 1994.376
Michallon, the pupil of Valenciennes, loved the few landscapes that Valenciennes painted. He understood the value of aesthetic beauty and fought for the acceptance of pure landscapes by focusing his career on them. He regularly took trips deep into the woods where he painted the majority of his paintings. In 1817, Michallon became the first winner of the Prix de Rome in historic landscape, the genre that Valenciennes had added to the competition. This feat bolstered the appreciation for landscapes and allowed the public to notice Michallon and his work. Michallon contrasts historical landscapes by including humans that complement the nature rather than using nature to complement humans. Michallon exalts the landscape by showing that it is a more worthy subject for his art than the humans.
Camille Corot, Waterfall at Terni, 1826
Oil on paper, laid down on wood, 2003.42.13
Michallon’s legacy continued after his death at age twenty-five through his pupil Corot. Corot loved nature as much as his master, which led to him starting the Barbizon school. More and more painters joined the Barbizon school as pure landscapes became more widely appreciated. The influence of Michallon on Corot is evident in Waterfall at Terni. Waterfall at Mont-Dore and Waterfall at Terni have many similarities, including the color palette, the size and shape of the waterfall, the mountainous background, and the placement of the waterfall between rocky cliffs covered in vegetation. Valenciennes’ influence on Corot is also evident in this painting, given the fact that Corot painted the exact waterfall that Valenciennes painted half a century prior.
Théodore Rousseau, Fontainebleau Forest, 1827-1830
Oil on canvas, Davis Museum and Cultural Center
The influence of Valenciennes and Michallon continued to flow throughout the Barbizon school as artists painted nature scenes as their subject matter. Rousseau portrayed this stream as the subject of his painting in a manner similar to the way the pioneers of pure landscape paintings portrayed waterfalls. This painting would not have been accepted before the nineteenth century due to its lack of meaning. Critics would have been bored with this painting as they disliked its lack of subject matter. The Barbizon School recognized that nature itself could be subject matter, thus proving the value of aesthetic beauty through their acceptance as artists.