50 Years / 50 Artworks
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Art and Environment
The Tweed Museum of Art is fortunate to own a group of paintings and prints by Jean-Francois Millet, a leading member of the French Barbizon school. Named for a small village at the edge of the Fountainebleau Forest south of Paris, the Barbizon artists took their cues from English and Dutch landscape art, where John Constable and Salomon van Ruisdael had painted “pure” landscapes, making sketches and studies directly from nature. The Barbizon artists bridged the gaps between an Academic landscape tradition, the conflicting schools of neo-Classicism and Romanticism, and the new style of Impressionism. Forever to revolutionize Western art, the major contributions of artists like Millet sprung from the practice of painting out-of-doors (en plein air), and from their choice of pure landscape, working class people and agricultural laborers as subjects. The landscape was no longer simply a painted backdrop for allegorical, religious or historical events, but a worthy subject in its own right. Radical change in France was not limited to the arts — the coalescence of the Barbizon school coincided with the increasing political strength of the French middle class, the July Revolution of 1830, and the emergence of the “Second Empire” in the 1840s — not to mention the Industrial Revolution, the cholera epidemics of 1848-49, and the overthrow of Emperor Napoleon III in 1870. With the increased importance of its middle class, various rural regions of France became better known and consequently, more of a source of national pride. Painters and printmakers produced scenes of these landscapes, encouraging many Parisians to explore the diverse beauty of their own countryside for the first time. With these major social and political changes as a backdrop, Camille Corot, Charles Daubigny, Diaz de la Pena, Jules Dupre, Charles Jacque, Jean-Francois Millet, Theodore Rousseau and Constant Troyon comprised the core group of artists who lived and worked at Barbizon and its environs between 1820 and 1870. Until Impressionism captured the public’s attention, paintings by Millet, Rousseau, Daubigny, and other Barbizon painters were extremely popular, in part because the style and its earthy subjects reminded many recently industrialized societies of their simpler agrarian pasts. To this day, reproductions of Millet’s The Angelus and The Gleaners can be seen the world over in many rural farmhouses. Painted around the same time as those two more well-known canvases, The Diggers pictures two French peasants engaged in that most back-breaking of labors, removing the sod from a field prior to cultivation. In keeping with the simple honesty of this work, Millet constructs the men and the landscape in which they toil with spare outlines, filling the forms in a brushy manner with thinned, earth-toned colors. The monochromatic cast of the laborers and landscape in which they toil underscore the monotony of their work. Although he was more interested in affirming the nobility of peasant life, the criticism of the French upper class inherent in Millet’s strain of social realism did little to win him the approval of the art establishment, and it was not until the last decade of his life that his works were accepted by the “official” French Academy.
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