The French painter and draftsman Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867) was the most representative artist of the Barbizon school and an intermediary between the Dutch landscapists of the 17th century and the impressionist school.
Born in Paris, Théodore Rousseau seems to have been initially stimulated to paint landscape by a cousin. The example of Dutch painting supplemented the formal instruction that Rousseau received from minor artists of his own time. A precocious artist who was painting from nature at the age of 15, he combined an analytical eye with a romantic heart.
In the 1830s Rousseau established himself with a series of boldly painted and dramatic scenes from the Auvergne, such as the Torrent (ca. 1830). Among the pictures done in northern France, the Forest of Fontainebleau, Bas-Bréau (begun 1837-1839, completed 1867) is especially characteristic. The Valley of Tiffauge (1837-1841) is another outstanding illustration of an almost Flemish type of visual analysis.
Made controversial by his nonclassical bias, Rousseau was not able to exhibit at the Salon between 1837 and 1847. By that time he had settled at Barbizon, where he exploited the pictorial and "moral" qualities of oak trees and sunlight. At the same time, fine drawings such as Country Road with Poplars (1830-1840) reveal how sensitively he could interpret a flat, featureless plain like those of Berry, where he worked in the 1840s.
In spite of the fact that Rousseau did not show at the Salon for many years, he was widely acclaimed as a landscape artist. In the 1845 Salon the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire even went so far as to maintain that Rousseau was superior to Camille Corot. In 1864, however, Baudelaire modified his enthusiasm and remarked that the artist showed "too much love for detail, not enough for the architecture of nature."
Luminosity, which Rousseau considered the "great secret" of nature, is very much in evidence as early as 1842, when he painted the Lowland Marsh in surprisingly high-keyed, dramatically contrasted tones. The intensity of his response to nature is reflected repeatedly in active, dynamic scenes such as Storm Effect, Road in the Forest of Fontainebleau (1860-1865). But sometimes the painter of Barbizon, who, according to one critic, "never painted a stroke without thinking of Ruisdael," became dull in his "patient inventory of nature," heavy in his application of paint, and overripe in his use of color, as in Sunset near Arbonne (ca. 1865).
Rousseau's fundamentally romantic spirit is well expressed in one of his own statements: "I also heard the voices of the trees … whose passions I uncovered. I wanted to talk with them … and put my finger on the secret of their majesty."
Dependent though he was on Dutch and, to lesser degree, on English painting, Rousseau was also inspired directly by nature, as were his successors, the impressionists. Like them, he put a particular emphasis on light, but on a light that has a more symbolic and a less naturalistic character.
Little has been written about Rousseau in English. David Croal Thomson, The Barbizon School of Painters (1890), gives a 19th-century view of this group of artists. See also Charles Sprague Smith, Barbizon Days (1903). The most outstanding study is Robert C. Herbert, Barbizon Revisited (1962).