Théodore Rousseau

Théodore Rousseau Biography

Artist (1812–1867)
French artist Théodore Rousseau is known as the founder of the 19th century style of landscape painting called the "Barbizon School."


Théodore Rousseau was born in Paris, France, on April 15, 1812. After receiving traditional artistic training in Paris, he established his own style of landscape painting, working directly from nature near the village of Barbizon. He became the leader of a group of artists known as the "Barbizon School," who emphasized nature's untamed aspects. Although he didn't achieve critical acceptance until late in life, Rousseau was admired by other painters, including the first generation of Impressionists. He died on December 22, 1867.

Early Life and Artistic Studies

Pierre-Étienne-Théodore Rousseau was born on April 15, 1812, in Paris, France. His father was a tailor, and his parents owned a dry-goods store in the city. Around the age of 14, Rousseau made a journey to the mountainous Jura region of France and was so inspired by the landscape that he took up painting. His parents had planned for him to study civil engineering at the École Polytechnique when he finished school. However, his interest in art was so strong that they agreed to send him to train with the landscape artist Alexandre Pau de St-Martin, a cousin of Rousseau's mother.

After studying in St-Martin's studio, Rousseau received further training from the artists Joseph Rémond and Guillaume Lethière; however, he found their styles too tradition-bound. Rousseau began to paint outdoors in the Parisian suburbs as much as possible, rather than working in the studio. He was influenced by the naturalist style of Dutch and Flemish landscape painters of the 17th century, and by the work of 19th-century British artist John Constable, who was known for his views of the English countryside.

A New Movement in Landscape Painting

In 1830, when he was 18 years old, Théodore Rousseau began to travel farther beyond the city to work from nature. He was particularly drawn to the country village of Barbizon, 35 miles southeast of Paris, and the nearby forest of Fontainebleau. There, he developed his own style of landscape painting, which differed from the calm, precise depictions of nature that dominated French painting. Rousseau preferred to evoke the landscape's wild, untamed side, often through vivid lighting effects and looser brushwork. He also emphasized the landscape as a subject in itself, without imposing mythological or historical narratives onto it.

The landscape around Barbizon, a rugged terrain with majestic trees, forest gorges, rocky ground and open fields, is present in most of Rousseau's work of the 1830s and 1840s. A few of his most significant works of these years are "Under the Birches, Evening" (1842-44, Toledo Museum of Art), "Hoarfrost" (1845; Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery) and "The Little Fisherman" (1848-89; Paris, Louvre). He painted these scenes directly from nature, often incorporating the intense effects of various seasons and weather conditions, such as colorful winter sunsets, stormy skies and wintry fields.

By mid-century, Rousseau was the unofficial leader of a group of artists who shared his Romantic artistic ideals of emotion and spontaneity. These artists, including Jean-François Millet and Camille Corot, followed Rousseau to Barbizon and formed an artists' colony later known as the "Barbizon School."

Rejection and Recognition

Although Rousseau's paintings were accepted into official Paris Salon exhibitions in the early 1830s, he was rejected by the Salon jury between 1836 and 1841, and then chose not to participate between 1842 and 1849. He was nicknamed "le grand refusé" ("the great refused one") because of his thorough and lengthy exclusion from these prestigious exhibitions. In the late 1840s, he distanced himself further from the Paris art world by settling permanently in Barbizon.

However, in the 1850s, Rousseau's fortunes were reversed. He received a government commission for "Edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, Sunset" (ca. 1848; Paris, Louvre), and the Salon began to accept his work into its juried exhibitions again. He also continued to paint significant landscapes in and around Barbizon, such as "The Oaks of Apremont" (ca. 1850-52; Paris, Louvre).

Later Years

In 1867, Rousseau's acceptance by the French art establishment was complete when he was named president of the fine-arts jury for that year's Universal Exposition in Paris.

Rousseau died on December 22, 1867, at his home in Barbizon. He had worked until his final days, leaving some unfinished paintings, such as the dark, moody "Forest in Winter at Sunset" (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), which he had been reworking since 1846. His art had a lasting influence on the Impressionist style of painting practiced by artists like Claude Monet, Frédéric Bazille and Alfred Sisley, and the Barbizon School, as a whole, achieved great popularity at the beginning of the 20th century.

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