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Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2002

Toil -- you're on candid canvas

Special to The Japan Times

In the mid-19th century, the French village of Barbizon was the artistic equivalent of the reality-TV show "Big Brother." In this tiny village with a population of just 352 (according to the 1872 census), the locals were under constant observation by the 100 or so artists reputedly living among them.

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"Rest After Harvest" (undated) by Jacques-Eugene Feyen

Unlike the painters who followed the academic style that had hitherto dominated French art, these artists paid attention to the minutest details of the rustic scenes and people around them. The resulting works -- and with them the story of this closely observed village and the artistic movement associated with it -- can be seen in the exhibition now on at the Sompo Japan Museum of Art (formerly the Yasuda Kasai Museum of Art).

"The main interest in the Barbizon School now, among both public and collectors, is in its role as a precursor of Impressionism," explains curator Masaru Igarashi. "I think Barbizon painters are especially appealing to collectors, because, at one-tenth of the cost of Impressionist paintings, it's a lot easier to build up a decent collection."

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"Woman Returning from the Well" (c. 1855-60) by Jean-Francois Millet

As a case in point, all the works at this exhibition belong to the private collection of Takeo Nakamura, a businessman based in Himeji City. This is only the second time he has allowed his collection to be exhibited.

Barbizon painters and their associates, such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Francois Millet, share many characteristics with the Impressionists. Like them, they favored painting outdoors, endeavoring to capture the true nature of light.

Also, like the Impressionists, they rejected the mythological and heroic subjects of the academic style in favor of representing reality. This can be seen in Millet's "Woman Returning from the Well" (1855-60), a frank depiction of a pregnant woman heavily-laden with two full buckets of water -- the feeling that she is posing for the artist seeming to make her burden all the more palpable. The impressionistic softness with which Millet paints the face conveys the subject's evident dull tiredness. Corot, too, uses light brushstrokes in works such as his idyllic landscapes, "Women Picking Daisies" (1865-70) and "Children Gathering Nest" (1872-3).

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"Women Picking Daisies" (1865-70) by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot

The increasing popularity of rustic subjects, which led a legion of artists to colonize this tiny village, reflects the increasing alienation of city and country life in the mid-19th century. Earlier in the century, exotic mythological and "Orientalist" scenes had been all the vogue, with painters such as Eugene Delacroix providing the art-loving public with Turkish or North African scenes.

By the mid-19th century, however, rural France itself appeared exotic to city dwellers. This accompanied a shift in the art-viewing and collecting classes; from the preindustrial aristocracy with links to the countryside, the principal audience for art had become middle class and city-living.

Nostalgia for the countryside and the rural way of life is the dominant note in Charles-Francois Daubigny's golden-hued "Sunset" (1858) and Charles-Emile Jacque's studies of shepherds and shepherdesses. Although these images are consistent with the Barbizon School's reflection of rural realities, there is nevertheless a strong suggestion of the Arcadian idealism of Claude Lorraine.

Other works tread a finer line. Jacque-Eugene Feyen's undated "Rest after Harvest" at first seems to be another idyllic canvas, showing peasants at rest in a field of golden wheat. After appreciating the scenery, the viewer is shocked when, focusing on the faces of the three figures, it becomes clear that they are completely exhausted, utterly unable to share our delight in the beautiful rustic scene.

Their subject matter led many of the Barbizon painters to develop strong humanitarian, social and political consciences. In Millet's case this was strengthened by the fact that he himself was of peasant stock. His ethereal "Returning from the Field" (1873) depicts a peasant woman on a donkey with her husband walking alongside. This clearly calls to mind the biblical story of Mary and Joseph's flight from Egypt, and, by association, suggests the nobility of poverty.

The work of Jules-Adolphe Breton is more strident in its exaltation of the rural laboring poor. "Calling of Evening" (1889) may show a softly colored rural twilight, but the gestures of the two peasant women in the foreground -- one calling out, the other raising a sickle -- hints at the Soviet Realism that the more true-to-life works of the Barbizon School partly inspired.

For all that, the serenity and rustic charm of many Barbizon works give the impression of timeless beauty, they are the product of the social changes of 19th-century France.

"The Nakamura Collection -- Pleiades Barbizon School" runs till Sept. 16 at the Sompo Japan Seiji Togo Memorial Museum of Art (03) 3349-3081 in Nishi Shinjuku. Open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m (Fri. until 7 p.m.; closed Mon.) Admission: 1,000 yen, 800 yen, 600 yen, free for children.

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