AMERICAN BARBIZONE ART
Curator of Art, sfmuseum.org
Paralleling the growth of San Francisco during the second half
of the 19th century was the flowering of American landscape art. Emerging in New
England labeled the Hudson River School it traveled west with the pioneers. The
magnificent sights that opened up were painted by an outstanding group of
artists. The climax of these pieces was achieved in larger than life works by
Church, Hill, Moran and most dramatically Beirstadt.
Long lines of the public paid to see awe-inspiring works. Into this milieu an
American artist returned from his European art training with a new concept of
landscape art. The name for the new form was Barbizone, named after a French
village. Instead of great and epic scenes the artist painted rustic spots, often
with peasants, forests and out of the way pools and glens. The French artist
Courbet’s Forest at Fontainebleau reflects this.
The returning American artist was George Inness, who was to become our leading
American landscape artist in the 1890s. Inness however gave Barbizone a new
twist. He was a devoted Swedenborgian, a pantheistic Christian religion. The
works were thus imbued with a deep spiritual quality. In 1891 Inness made a trip
to San Francisco, here he was befriended by William Keith, the leading
California artists of the majestic landscapes. Inness stayed with Keith for six
months. In that period Keith was converted to the Swendenborgian religion and
its application in Barbizone art. Keith in turn influenced other Bay Area
artists. A little clump of trees, a forest clearing or a tranquil river became
favorite spots to paint. We all have an idyllic oasis that we emotionally store
in our memories. The Barbizone artists seem to have tapped into this. Carl
Jonnevold, Nels Hagarup and Manuel Valencia were well regarded for their works
in this style.
Ralph Blakelock, an East Coast artist, made three extended western trips.
Returning to New York he painted not the epic visions of the earlier artists,
but rather remote idealized spots. At times with Indians, but the core was
landscape. Poorly received at first Blakelock, with a large family, was at or
near poverty. Under the strain he had a breakdown, to the extent that he was
institutionalized for the next 15 years. His paintings caught on, and the
dealers sold his work for large sums, more even than European master works.
Neither Blakelock nor his family was ever to see any of this money. The dealers
made the profits and many fake works were pushed on the public. Barbizone’s
popularity did not long survive the 20th century; a new movement in French art
was to trample all previous styles, this, of course, was Impressionism. The
spiritual quality that so entranced the Victorian art lover was deleted in favor
of the effects of light on everyday objects.
St. Mary’s College in Moraga has a museum devoted to Keith with many examples of
both his earlier and later Barbizone style. The Swedenborgian church on Lyon at
Washington Street in San Francisco has a number of Keith works in its nave. The
de Young Museum and the Oakland Museum of California have many Barbizone works
HAS IT OCCURRED TO YOU?
Ralph Blakelock produced some of his finest paintings while incarcerated in a
mental institution. Richard Dadd, an English 19th century fair painter, likewise
did his best work while locked up as mad. What factors might cause this
William Keith’s two distinctive styles of painting invite comparison. What are
the strong points or each? Which do you prefer?
How would you explain the 19th century art lovers desire for meaning in their
art, i.e., spiritual, historical, or emotional as compared to the present day
art lovers seeking out novelty and what some would call “wallpaper”, i.e.,
colors and forms that blend with the décor of the home of office.
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