A show titled The Road to Impressionism: Barbizon Landscapes from the Walters Arts Museum might seem to call for a viewer with fairly specialized knowledge. But this Frick Art Museum exhibition of work by artists included in the Barbizon school of French landscape painting is tailored for accessibility. And with three rooms of paintings and drawings, and ample wall-text, the painters' respective roles are clearly cast.
Millet is the socially conscious storyteller, whose barebones exposure of the hard peasant life would usher in the effusive compassion of Van Gogh and, a century later, the orating realism of Benton and Rivera. Corot is the venerated patriarch of the genre, who helped establish landscape as a respectable mode. Rousseau is the consummate rule-breaker, whose stylistic liberties further loosened the academy's doctrinaire hold on Western painting.
However, while the show declines to offer explicit commentary on who was sticking with tradition and who was really pushing the envelope, the attentive viewer can construct a surprisingly clear picture of French landscape painting's evolution and dynamism. To weigh Breton's laughing peasant girls against Millet's tired, ruddy laborers is to juxtapose the smiling housewife from a Mr. Clean commercial with the Hazelwood woman on the 11 o'clock news. And while Troyon's crisply rendered cows settle beautifully into their serene backdrop, there is something more engaging about the almost shapeless black masses and impasto slash of a crescent moon in Daubigny's "Twilight, The Seine at Andresy."
Bumpy historical contextualization aside, the work is invariably attractive. Whether his brushwork was sketchily built up or painstakingly photographic, every artist is a master of the pastoral scene. Cows assert their motions convincingly, whether grazing or harnessed to a till, and the sun beaming through bulky cumulous clouds is often breathtaking. I kept more than one patron held up while I gawked at Corot's staggeringly deft hand.
Yet the handy "Barbizon" label here masks an imbalance. The show's final stroke is a room of drawings and sketches by Millet, who otherwise appears only briefly among his fellow Barbizoners. This abrupt narrowing of the show's scope to a single artist makes it seem as if he'd been the feature all along and the others just context. But in fact, his work, of any, does beg deeper investigation.
Millet's pictures, though tame by contemporary standards, were comparatively steeped in social relevance. His peasants demand more room on the picture plane. They dress in plain, rugged wear appropriate for their labor, and they've forgotten to smile. (Given their evident sympathy for the lower castes, it is curious that these paper works are from the collection of Henry Clay Frick.)
Included is one of the painter's most iconic images, "The Sower." The work exemplifies not only Millet's pregnant choice of theme, but also his practiced understanding of the human form, as the subject bends and sweeps his arm to throw his seeds wide. Surrounding the sower is the land he works, uniformly furrowed.
In "Flight of Crows" ("La Fermière"), a peasant trudges her cows along to graze a drab, rocky field. Like the sower himself, Millet pictorially buries all three figures in the land that they rely on, while a murder of crows rises into a flat sky behind. While reds and blues emerge from the turf, there's no sun bursting through this cloudy sky.
In the wake of urbanization and the movement away from pastoral life, these scenes of rural living took on many transformations, ranging from the way paint was applied to big shifts in their sociopolitical undertones. The divergent trends of the Barbizon school indicate the fragmented interpretation of painting's agenda in France -- and the rest of Europe -- that would only fracture further in decades to come.
The Road to Impressionism continues through May 24. Frick Art Museum, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze. 412-371-0600 or TheFrickPittsburgh.org
- c. 1866 Frick Art & Historical Center.
- Ain't no sunshine: Jean-Franois Millet's "Flight of Crows" (also known as "La Fermire")