Barbizon, a French village, near the forest of Fontainebleau, which gave its name to the "Barbizon school" of painters, whose leaders were Corot, Rousseau, Millet and Daubigny, together with Diaz, Dupré, Jacque, Français, Harpignies and others. They put aside the conventional idea of "subject" in their pictures of landscape and peasant life, and went direct to the fields and woods for their inspiration. The distinctive note of the school is seen in the work of Rousseau and of Millet, each of whom, after spending his early years in Paris, made his home in Barbizon. Unappreciated, poor and neglected, it was not until after years of struggle that they attained recognition and success. They both died at Barbizon - Rousseau in 1867 and Millet in 1875. It is difficult now to realize that their work, so unaffected and beautiful, should have been so hardly received. To understand this, it is necessary to remember the conflicts that existed between the classic and romantic schools in the first half of the 19th century, when the classicists, followers of the tradition of David, were the predominant school. The romantic movement, with Géricault, Bonington and Delacroix, was gaining favour.
In 1824 Constable's pictures were shown in the Salon, and confirmed the younger men in their resolution to abandon the lifeless pedantry of the schools and to seek inspiration from nature. In those troubled times Rousseau and Millet unburdened their souls to their friends, and their published lives contain many letters, some extracts from which will express the ideals which these artists held in common, and show clearly the true and firmly-based foundation on which their art stands. Rousseau wrote, "It is good composition when the objects represented are not there solely as they are, but when they contain under a natural appearance the sentiments which they have stirred in our souls.... For God's sake, and in recompense for the life He has given us, let us try in our works to make the manifestation of life our first thought: let us make a man breathe, a tree really vegetate." And Millet - "I try not to have things look as if chance had brought them together, but as if they had a necessary bond between themselves. I want the people I represent to look as if they really belonged to their station, so that imagination cannot conceive of their ever being anything else. People and things should always be there with an object.
I want to put strongly and completely all that is necessary, for I think things weakly said might as well not be said at all, for they are, as it were, deflowered and spoiled - but I profess the greatest horror for uselessness (however brilliant) and filling up. These things can only weaken a picture by distracting the attention toward secondary things." In another letter he says - "Art began to decline from the moment that the artist did not lean directly and naively upon impressions made by nature. Cleverness naturally and rapidly took the place of nature, and decadence then began.... At bottom it always comes to this: a man must be moved himself in order to move others, and all that is done from theory, however clever, can never attain this end, for it is impossible that it should have the breath of life." The ideas of the "Barbizon school" only gradually obtained acceptance, but the chief members of it now rank among the greater artists of their time.
See D. Croal Thomson, The Barbizon School (1891), with a full list of the French authorities to be consulted; Jules Breton, Nos peintres du siècle, Paris, 1900.