Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Subject of Art #2: The Barbizon School and the Origins of the Artist Group

An Artist Group can be loosely defined as individual artists who band together to learn from each other and further a collective vision. Such organizations have become so accepted over the past two hundred years that it's difficult to imagine how the art world would look without them. Nevertheless, the idea of artists getting together on their own and acting cooperatively for their own reasons is a relatively new phenomenon and one which helped to nurture the revolutionary attitudes that led to Modern Art as we know it.

Up until the mid-nineteenth century, the competition between artists for the lucrative commissions that came from the aristocracies of Europe and the church was fierce, and artists were far more likely to jealously guard the secrets of their technique and ideas from their rivals. Even such giants of art history as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were at best terse with each other—if not downright hostile—and they both despised Raphael. Such was the nature of Renaissance Italy, where an important project at the Vatican could make an artist's career, and the battles to win those commissions were sometimes brutal.

The establishment of the French Academy in 1635 ushered in the age of academic art training that we still have today. However even then, while students may have cooperated with one another during their school years, their former classmates became their competitors once they graduated.

Around the same time in the Netherlands, artists found new patrons in the rising middle class of wealthy businessmen who had the money to afford luxuries like original artwork. But the competition then was as cutthroat as anything we see today in our commercially driven societies and it's interesting to note that of all the Flemish painters of that era, the two most loved and revered today, Rembrandt and Vermeer, were rather unsuccessful in the art scene of their time (it is thought that the reason Rembrandt created so many self-portraits was because he didn't have many paying commissions to paint other people!).

Given the environment of intense competition that was inherent in European art, it is all the more amazing that a group like the Barbizon School was ever formed! Perhaps the cooperative spirit that this first of the modern artist groups exhibited was a sign of the changes that would soon come to all of Western Civilization.

The Barbizon School was a group of as many as sixteen painters who gathered together in the town of Barbizon, which was located in the very picturesque Fountainbleu Forest in France. The group first formed in 1830, after a very influential exhibition of the works of British landscape painter John Constable at the Paris Salon, and they resolved to follow Constable's example of drawing inspiration from nature and focusing on the mundane, everyday aspects of contemporary life.

Among the artists of the Barbizon School who become renowned and beloved were Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Francois Daubigny, Jean-Francois Millet and Theodore Rousseau, but it was more the spirit of the school itself and the new and different work that all the artists were doing there that allowed these relatively obscure artists to become major figures in the evolution of Western art. The model that they set, of artists working together in harmony, sharing ideas and possibilities, has had a ripple effect throughout the art culture that is still strongly felt today.

The immediate successors to the Barbizon School, the Impressionists, followed almost exactly the same formula, working in cooperative groups who shared ideas and making nature and the everyday world their subject. To that formula the Impressionists added their rapid painting technique that allowed for the depiction of a momentary impression of a scene.

The Post-Impressionists, while being more individualistic and self-centered, also took much from the example of the Barbizon School. Vincent Van Gogh in particular was deeply moved by Millet's images of the lives of peasants and the nobility he saw in their daily work in the fields. It was Van Gogh's desire to create something like the Barbizon School in Arles where he worked, a "studio of the South," that led to his ill-fated attempt to work and live side-by-side with Paul Gauguin.

Throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, Artist Groups based on the Barbizon School concept became the norm and were at the center of most of the major developments in the art of that period. The partnership between Picasso and Georges Braques to create Cubism, the groups Die Brucke and Der Blau Reiter in Germany who developed and refined the Expressionist style and made some of the first systematic investigations into non-objective art, the DaDa group and the Surrealists who first developed much of the theory behind Installation and Performance Art that would later become important facets of the Post-Modern era are all great examples of the Barbizon School's legacy.

Even more importantly, we can see all around us today the beautiful results that are created when artists work together, and that spirit of cooperation has filtered out into all aspects of the art world.

Tell us what's meaningful or helpful to YOU when participating in a local or national art group.

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