Théodore Rousseau (French, Paris 1812 - 1867 Barbizon)
Landscape Study ("La Source"), ca. 1830
Signed bottom right in dark brown oil: T H.R...(illegible)
Oil on paper mounted on oak panel
9 1/2 x 13 3/4 in. (24.1 x 34.9 cm)
General Acquisitions Fund and Friends of Art Fund, 1966
This oil study of a rushing spring is attributed to Théodore Rousseau, the leading painter of naturalist landscape (the so-called school of Barbizon) in nineteenth-century France. The painting probably dates from around 1830. Its rugged topography and bold, painterly attack convincingly place it among Rousseau's open-air studies of the Auvergne and the Jura, such as The Torrent (ca. 1830; Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes).1
The study addresses the harsh and varied topography of rock, brush, and crashing water as a set of textures, densities, and incidents of relief. It also exhibits the painter's facility and effort in extracting these traits from the material character of brushed pigment. The flat, simplified form of the rock at the upper right seems the result of direct sunlight and sleek strokes of paint; on the rock below, scumbled, matte deposits of dry brushwork provide a layer of rough moss. Thick dots and fluid lines of paint create touches of light on jutting forms. The water falls straight, opaque, and hard from the central ledge of rock, yet tumbles in soft curls and streaked layers over the rounded rocks at the lower right.
Rousseau's early oil studies represent a late phase within a tradition of open-air oil sketching that stretched back to seventeenth-century classical landscape.2 In 1800, the use and classification of oil sketching as a means of training the landscape painter's eye, memory, and hand were elaborately codified by the academic painter and teacher Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819), in an influential treatise on landscape painting which Rousseau would have known. Among Valenciennes's recommended subjects and aims of study are minutely observed rocks and plants: "Note the details of bark, moss, roots, branches and clinging ivy....See how light the leaves look against a seemingly black surface."3
Other early oil studies by Rousseau and his contemporaries focus on a particular effect of light, or on ways in which a group of elements may be viewed and framed by the trained eye of the landscape painter, such as The Jetty at Granville (1831; Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum).4 The growing popularity of naturalist landscape and the taste for intimate, informal sketches made these works increasingly viable for exhibition and sale from the 1840s onward.5 The Oberlin study, however, was probably not intended for public exhibition or sale during Rousseau's lifetime, although such works were well known and admired by artists and a few critics. Its close vantage point, indifference to the motif as a visual ensemble, and its focus on discreet incidents of topography and brushwork mark it as a working study, intended principally for the artist's own use.
Among the naturalist painters of Barbizon (named for the hamlet at the edge of the Fontainebleau forest where several of the group stayed or lived permanently), Théodore Rousseau was the greatest in talent, reputation, and complexity of achievement. He entered the atelier of Jean-Charles-Joseph Rémond (1795-1875) when only sixteen, and later the atelier of Guillaume Lethière (1760-1832). By 1827 he was painting studies of sites in the Île de France, particularly the forests of Fontainebleau and Compiègne, with great vigor and directness. He made his debut at the Salon of 1831 with a composed landscape executed with an unusually bold attack. From 1836 until 1841, Rousseau's paintings were refused by the Salon, earning him the title le grand refusé, an epithet that linked his reputation with that of Eugène Delacroix and thus increased Rousseau's renown among artists, writers, and collectors sympathetic to Romanticism and its cult of nature. Rousseau's most eloquent and influential supporter was the great critic and Republican partisan Théophile Thoré (1807-1869), whose Salon reviews made frequent reference to Rousseau's "refused" landscapes, particularly his studies from nature. Rousseau began to participate again in the Salon in 1849, when jury members first included artists. Throughout the course of the 1850s and ‘60s, he received increasing official, critical, and commercial recognition (he won a first class medal at the Paris World's Fair of 1855). At the same time, however, many critics suggested that his successes had adversely affected his work. Though his reputation as chef d'école remained intact, many observers faulted his splendid effects of light, color, and space as "theatrical," and found his mode of execution intrusive and "false." Rousseau was plagued by financial worries throughout his life, despite the constant presence of various types and phases of his painting in the art galleries and auction houses of Paris, and in the collections of wealthy industrialists. His health was in steady decline during the last ten years of his life. Tended by his friend Jean-François Millet, Rousseau died in Barbizon on 22 December 1867.
Herbert, Robert L. Barbizon Revisited. Exh. cat., California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1962.
Forges, Marie-Thérèse de. Théodore Rousseau. Exh. cat., Palais du Louvre, Paris, 1967.
Miquel, Pierre. Le Paysage français au dix-neuvième siècle. Vol. 3. Maurs-la-Jolie, 1975.
Green, Nicholas. Théodore Rousseau. Exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1982.
Sillevis, John, and Hans Kraan, eds. The Barbizon School. Exh. cat., Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, 1985.
Private collection, France
Sold to Hazlitt Gallery, London (1958)
Sold to Eugene V. Thaw, New York (after 1961), from whom purchased in 1966.
London, Hazlitt Gallery, 1959. Some Paintings of the Barbizon School. May. Cat. no. 28.
London, Hazlitt Gallery, 1961. Théodore Rousseau. November. Cat. no. 7.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, p. 131, fig. 90.
The oil sketch was executed on paper mounted onto an oak panel. The thin, fine, off-white ground appears to be bound in an aqueous medium, and was prepared by the artist. The surface of oil paint is thin, allowing the texture of the paper (though not of the panel) to show through. While some areas appear glossy and clear, much of the painting's surface is dull and slightly hazy, either due to grime, or to deterioration of the natural resin varnish. Although the support is in sound condition, there are losses along the edges of the paper. Slight tears and creases, particularly in the upper corners, may indicate that the paper was attached to the panel at a later date. The paper is somewhat brittle, though securely attached to the panel, which is in good condition. Losses of paint at the edges and corners were treated at an unkown date. The inpainting is restrained and unobtrusive.
1.Oil on canvas, 37.5 x 46 cm; reproduced in Robert Herbert, Barbizon Revisited (exh. cat., California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1962), p. 178, no. 84. A letter from Eugene Thaw to Chloe Hamilton Young of 21 February 1966 offers this comparison and a date of 1830 for the AMAM work.
2. See Peter Galassi (Corot in Italy: Open-Air Painting and the Classical-Landscape Tradition [New Haven, ca. 1991], particularly chapter one), for an extensive account of the roots and evolution of open-air oil sketching practices among European, and especially French, painters in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
3. Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Elémens de perspective pratique à l'usage des artistes, suivis des réflexions et conseils à un élève sur la peinture, et particulièrement sur le genre du paysage (Paris, 1800; 2d ed. 1820), p. 340. Translation from John Silles, "Plein Air and Historical Landscape," in The Barbizon School (exh. cat., Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, 1985), p. 14.
4. Oil on canvas, 17.5 x 43 cm; reproduced in Robert Herbert, Barbizon Revisited (exh. cat., California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1962), p. 179, no. 86.
5. From the 1830s onward, the oil study changed dramatically in response to its new aesthetic prestige and increased public and commercial currency. On Rousseau's oil studies, their reception and the market, see Nicholas Green, Théodore Rousseau (exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1982); and Pierre Miquel, Le Paysage français au dix-neuvième siècle, vol. 3 (Maurs-la-Jolie, 1975).