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Monday, August 17, 2015

Théodore Rousseau

Under the Birches, (evening), 1842-43, Theodore Rousseau

Theodore Rousseau, ca. 1850
In any endeavor, any profession, persistence is at, or near, the top of any list of traits to be admired and employed. For the painter it might be simply working intensely on a single painting, or even a single part of a painting until he or she is completely satisfied. It could mean doing virtually the same painting with somewhat different lighting, point of view, or composition until completely satisfied. It could mean entering different paintings in the same juried competition year after year, even in the face of perennial rejection. It's painting when you don't feel like painting. It's painting under adverse circumstances (poor weather, poor light, interruptions, hunger, thirst, or blaring TV reality shows). I might also add that persistence is not always a good thing. I've known artists who "persisted" in the pursuit of perfection to the point they "gave perfection a bad name." There sometimes comes a point when a problem is too major to fix and not major enough to worry about. Virtually all successful artist (and probably some unsuccessful ones too) have this trait. One, whom I came upon recently, was the French Barbizon painter, Theodore Rousseau.

Mont Saint-Michel, 1832, Theodore Rousseau
Self-portrait, Henri Rousseau, 1890
When we hear the name Rousseau in connection with French art we immediately think of the slightly younger, Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), who was a self-taught "naïve" painter of childlike landscapes, figures, animals, and jungle scenes. As anyone can see in comparing Theodore Rousseau's Under the Birches (evening) (top) or his Mont Saint-Michel (above) from 1832, with Henri Rousseau's Self-portrait (right) from 1890, it might be easy to confuse the names, but it would be pretty hard to get their paintings confused. Henri Rousseau is the more famous of the two, by the way. Insofar as I've been able to gather, they were not related. Theodore Rousseau was born in 1812 in Paris, Henri Rousseau in the small town of Laval in northwestern France. Theodore Rousseau was a whole generation older and thus from a totally different period in French art--the Romantic era.

Glade of the Reine Blanche in the Fontainebleau Forest, 1860, Theodore Rousseau.
At the height of academic dominance in French art, the Romantics of the 1830s found themselves struggling for acceptance in much the same way as the Impressionists a generation later. Rousseau had some success entering the Salon completion in the early 1930s, but in 1936 his impressive Landscape of the Jura (descent of the cows) was rejected by the jury. Thereafter, Rousseau entered eight other works in the Salon competitions between 1836 and 1841. None of them were accepted. Rousseau gave up...not painting, but entering the Salon competitions. Then, in 1849, following a reorganization of the competition, Rousseau tried again. His renewed persistence paid off. He had three paintings accepted. Two years later, in 1851, Rousseau's masterpiece The Edge of the Forest was also accepted, a painting similar in content and composition to his later work, Glade of the Reine Blanche in the Fontainebleau Forest, (above) dating from 1860.

The Cave in a Cliff near Granville, 1833, Theodore Rousseau.
Jean Baptiste de Nompère de
 Champagny, Theodore Rousseau
In general, being a Romantic era painter, Rousseau's landscapes are mostly rather dark and brooding. That's especially true of his scenes featuring a sunrise/sunset. I'm not overly fond of them and apparently neither was the French Academie des Beaux-Arts. However there are flashes of light and beauty, not to mention unusual content which stand apart among Rousseau's run-of-the-mill depictions of the flat, mostly uninteresting French countryside. His The Cave in a Cliff near Granville (above), from 1833, is a perfect example. Few artists, then or now, have painted caves, but Rousseau not only chose to do so, but to paint one from the inside looking out. By the same token, we often find landscape artists who don't even try painting portraits, but Rousseau's Jean Baptiste de Nompère de Champagny, (right), shows not just a knack for it, but appears to be quite technically accomplished, though the head to body ratio appears to be a bit off.

Market-Place in Normandy, 1830s, Theodore Rousseau.
View of the belfry of Orleans,
1852, Theodore Rousseau.
In a similar manner, it would appear that Rousseau didn't spend all his time hiding out with paint and palette in the forests of Fontainebleau. He could also paint Normandy village markets (above) and Belfries in Orleans (right). When we talk about Barbizon painters, and Rousseau was one of the first of the group to hang out there, we usually think of "en plein air" painters. and particularly their influence on the nascent Impressionists who embraced their woodland content and freedom of expression, if not their dark, brooding, palettes. However, it's important we look at Barbizon landscapes apart from their subsequent influence, for the important element they present to mainstream Romanticism of the period. Artists such as Rousseau were the landscape equivalents of Delacroix, Gericault, Cabanel, Delaroche, Prud'hon, and others, all of whom struggled to deliver French painting from the static clutches of Academic Classicism--in effect, clearing the underbrush for the Impressionists and the century of Modern Art which followed.

Forest landscape Sun, Theodore Rousseau


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