Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 24, 2000
Greg M. Thomas Art and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century France: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau Princeton University Press, 2000. 280 pp.; 88 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0691059462)

Greg Thomas’s book Art and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century France: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau provides the reader with a long-awaited reevaluation of French landscape painting before the Impressionist period. While the study of Impressionism has sometimes become synonymous with French landscape painting during the nineteenth century, very little has been done, apart from the recent exhibitions of Camille Corot’s work, to reassess the artistic contribution of the preceding generation of landscape painters.

By concentrating on the landscapes of Théodore Rousseau, Greg Thomas’s book contributes new insights about the career of a relatively neglected artist of the nineteenth century. Rousseau has not been the subject of an exhibition at the Louvre since his centennial retrospective in 1967. It was followed in 1968 by Robert Herbert’s pioneer show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Barbizon Revisited. On this occasion, Herbert looked at Rousseau’s and his Barbizon companion’s paintings as more than just a transitional phase between romantic landscape and Impressionism. He created a framework that understood the development of naturalist landscape painting in the context of the radical politics of the times. The exhibition organized by the late Nicholas Green in 1982 at the University of East Anglia, Théodore Rousseau, 1812-1867, was the last time the public had the opportunity to see a major retrospective of Rousseau’s work.

Specialists of mid-nineteenth-century art are always eager to learn more about a period that has never quite received the attention it deserves. The reasons for the neglect of Barbizon painting are too complex to be dealt with at length within the limits of this review. French landscape painting has played an essential role in the development of modern art, and many scholars consider the paintings of artists such as Rousseau and the other members of the Barbizon School as precursors of modern landscape painting. Despite this, few publications have tackled the essential issues at stake in Rousseau’s work. What makes Greg Thomas’s work extremely valuable is its capacity to illuminate the past by providing us with an exemplary instance of a serious and in-depth reading of an artist’s work. Equally essential is its relevance to the present, bringing a historical dimension to ecological issues that have concerned many in recent years. It becomes clears when reading Art and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century France that mid-nineteenth-century concerns about nature cannot be fully grasped without understanding the development of the modern metropolis. Furthermore, Rousseau’s quest to preserve the Forest of Fontainebleau makes us realize that most of us living in urban centers at the beginning of the 21st century have still much to learn about the nature activists of the 1800s.

Herbert’s work, Barbizon Revisited, concentrated on creating a historical context for understanding the works of artists such as Rousseau, Diaz, Corot and Millet, connecting their painting to the 1830 and 1848 Revolutions. Green’s study, The Spectacle of Nature: Landscape and Bourgeois Culture in Nineteenth-Century France (Manchester University Press, 1990) paid specific attention to the role played by landscape painting in the general consumption of nature by the urban bourgeoisie. Greg Thomas’s book investigates still another avenue.

By looking into the origin of the science of ecology and by looking at Rousseau’s painting in a totally new way, Thomas opens an entirely new set of possibilities for understanding landscape painting. While many scholars have viewed landscape painting in connection with the political and social fabric of rural life, or in relationship to the formation of national identity, Thomas proposes a new paradigm. For him, Rousseau’s paintings are not just picturesque images for the weary urbanite. They propose a new ecological model, where the process of art-making echoes the process of transformation at play in nature itself. Human beings here are not part of this network of interconnections but are relegated to the role of spectator. In the first part of the book Thomas spends a great deal of time laying forth this new theory of spectatorship, where he demonstrates that Rousseau indeed created a special visual experience that was in itself capable of generating an ecological appreciation of the landscape (16). This, he explains convincingly, was probably a major reason for Rousseau’s rejection during his lifetime. With extremely pertinent and close formal readings of specific paintings and by backing his readings with precise documentation such as maps and photographs of the actual sites, Thomas makes an extremely strong case for this new way of understanding Rousseau’s paintings. His analysis of Rousseau’s use of ellipsoidal perspective is a model of art-historical analysis (34-47).

Thomas’s book will permanently change our understanding of Barbizon painting and of Rousseau’s work, in particular, for two main reasons. First, looking at Rousseau’s landscapes as ecological in nature helps us understand why his work has never been fit comfortably into either the Romantic or the Naturalist category. Thomas’s argument is extremely convincing. Without the new paradigm of the ecological landscape, neither the critics of the nineteenth century, nor the Modernists concerned with Rousseau’s position as an “in-between” figure, sometimes romantic, sometimes naturalist, could understand his work. Secondly, Thomas’s interdisciplinary connection to the world of the natural sciences reminds us that the concept of ecology was coined in 1866, one year before the death of Rousseau. Thomas’s investigation of the world of early “green” politics and of the role played by Rousseau in the preservation of the Forest of Fontainebleau makes reading this book an extremely stimulating experience. It reminds us of our complicated role in the delicate balance between wilderness and civilization.

Thomas coins the useful term, “earth narrative,” to oppose the social narrative one encounters in the works of Millet or Corot. We quickly become aware of what made Rousseau’s work so difficult to interpret. Not only did he overload the viewer with various visual sensations, novel light effects and a profusion of visual sensations, but he also created a new sense of viewing landscape by using ellipsoidal perspective, which made the viewer acutely and painfully aware of his/her separateness from the landscape. We become witnesses to the natural processes of the earth and to the interconnections among all living things. Using an extremely detailed and rigorous formal analysis of the works and their animated surfaces, Thomas sees the art-making process of Rousseau as equivalent to the evolution of nature. He points to Rousseau’s constant difficulties in finishing his landscapes as proof of his concern with the process of transformation found in nature itself. By positioning the viewer on the outskirts of the landscape, Rousseau reinforces the impression that the landscape has its own self-generating order. The spectator stands powerless in front of a greater system of organization.

Rousseau’s landscapes are not about the fertile soil. He never painted a scene of plowing or harvesting, but specialized in painting the marshes of Berry or the wildest and less accessible parts of the Forest of Fontainebleau, an area that by the 1840s was under siege by foresters and tourists alike. Thomas shows Rousseau’s vision of nature as totally opposed to the work of popular realist painters like Rosa Bonheur, and demonstrates why, in the heavily politicized climate of the nineteenth-century art world, Rousseau was rejected by the official artistic establishment. He goes beyond the traditional readings of Rousseau’s mythic rejection from the Salon and enables us to comprehend more clearly why so many critics felt uncomfortable in front of Rousseau’s paintings: they felt small and inconsequential, not in control, before a vision of nature existing without them.

Thomas’s work surveys Rousseau’s entire career (the catalogue of the key works and the chronology of his travels are extremely valuable to English-speaking readers). He also presents us with the first English translation of his writings. Rousseau’s role as an early conservationist has never been investigated in such detail. While it was already known that Rousseau had sent a petition to Napoleon III pleading for protection from industrial exploitation of the Forest of Fontainebleau, Thomas alone connects Rousseau’s interest in conservation with the originality of his painting techniques. Thomas also traces the importance of Rousseau’s new ecological rendition of the landscape in the work of Courbet, and examines the complex friendship between Rousseau and Dupré, another neglected landscapist of the period.

What makes Thomas’s contribution to the field of French art history extremely valuable, beyond the establishment of this new paradigm for discussing landscape painting, is his excellent use of contemporary criticism, adding many more voices to the familiar ones of Théophile Thoré and Charles Baudelaire. Art and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century France: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau will surely become an indespensable reference to anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of 19th-century art.

—Véronique Chagnon-Burke, Queens College, City University of New York

Véronique Chagnon-Burke
Queen’s College, City University of New York