Sunday, June 4, 2017

Painting in Barbizon, France, in the 1870s

(from "A Chronicle of Friendships, 1873-1900" by Will H. Low)

"Of all the vocations of man, surely few afford greater joy to the practitioner than the work of the painter out-of-doors. The stillness of the morning and the spicy odours of the trees, welcomed the matinal painter, and a brisk walk, never so long as to induce fatigue, for there were abundant motifs near at hand, brought him to his work.
Self-Portrait by Will Hicok Low
The folding easel was soon in place, the canvas placed upon it, the clear and pure colours, squeezed from their tubes, duly arranged upon the palette, and work began.Often, if the painting ground was some distance from the inn, a lunch would be carried, and a second canvas for an afternoon effect would be ready, when, after the lunch disposed of and sundry cigarettes burned on the altar of the arts, the industrious painter resumed his task.

Canvases of large dimensions, too large to be carried to and fro, would be firmly fixed to upright stakes driven in the ground and, with the absorbent back of the canvas protected from the weather by oil cloth, would be left out of doors for weeks until the painting was completed.

No other protection was necessary. The painted surface of the canvas was practically impervious to rain, and the chance faggot gathers, the forest guards, or even errant children passing that way had, one and all, too hearty respect for the arts to inflict the slightest damage on a painting in progress, thus left at their mercy.

Andreescu at Barbizon, 1880
by Nicolae Grigorescu
Many a picture in the museums today, protected by frame and glass, and the temperature of the gallery where it hangs carefully regulated, was thus born gypsy-like in the woods, where the shafts of sunlight by day and the stars by night watched curiously the progress of its growth.

The quitting hour was a fitting crown to a day well spent. When the shadows grew long, when the sunlight in the distance, which had effectually baffled your brush for a tantalizing period, had finally faded, the time to buckle up your trips, strap your knapsack to your back, and turn your face homeward had come.

In the midsummer the golden light in the tree-tops sent you on your way through the cool shadow below as though your head were a halo, and it was yet day when, emerging from the forest, the point iron of the alpenstock to which the artist affixes his sketching umbrella rang on the stone pavement of Siron's courtyard, and vermouth and friendly criticism awaited you.

Later in the autumn, the evening settled chill, you stretched yourself a little stiffly as you ceased your work, glad at the prospect of the brisk walk. By the time your various paraphernalia of the artist were strapped together it was dusk, and holding your newly painted canvas gingerly from your person, your footsteps echoed loudly as you gained the highway through the woods. You walked in a Gothic cathedral, and a sense of solitude rose from the rhythmic beat of your feet.

The lights would be lit in the inn on your arrival, the painters, growing fewer in number as the season advanced, would be gathered in the high room, panelled with sketches, where we dined; where the table, already set, awaited, and a fire crackled on the hearth in the corner.

A Hotel/Restaurant in Barbizon, France

Here, by the light of a candle held close to your sketch, your work received the approbation or frank disapproval of your friends, each on his arrival running the gauntlet of criticism, and there ensued a discussion on art in general, accompanied by becoming personalities, until it was interrupted by the entrance of Siron, bearing high a huge and smoking soup tureen and crying, "A table, Messieurs, a table!"

We dearly loved the the general discussion of art in those days, when we frankly talked shop on all occasions - and some of us have not outgrown the habit.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoor
Some of the Young Art Students who went to paint in the
Barbizon Forest in 1877 - Including R.A.M. Stevenson of
the striped socks! These would have been folks WIll Low knew.