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Robert Butler, Curator of Art,

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 on display.


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 phenomenon?

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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