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Théodore Rousseau’s Majestic, Melancholy Trees: an Exhibition at the Getty Center

by Deb Shaw

Forest of Fontainebleau, Cluster of Tall Trees Overlooking the Plain of Clair-Bois at the Edge of Bas-Bréau; Théodore Rousseau (French, 1812 - 1867); France; about 1849 - 1852; Oil on canvas; 90.8 × 116.8 cm (35 3/4 × 46 in.); 2007.13

Forest of Fontainebleau, Cluster of Tall Trees Overlooking the Plain of Clair-Bois at the Edge of Bas-Bréau; Théodore Rousseau (French, 1812 – 1867); France; about 1849 – 1852; Oil on canvas; 90.8 × 116.8 cm (35 3/4 × 46 in.); 2007.13

In addition to all the other exciting exhibitions to see in Southern California this summer, The Getty Center currently has a wonderful exhibition titled Unruly Nature: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau. On display until September 11, 2016, the exhibition brings together seventy paintings and drawings loaned from museums and private collections from all over the world. It is the first comprehensive exhibition about Rousseau in North America, and the largest Rousseau exhibition since 1967 in Paris.

Personally, it is my favorite type of exhibition, containing working sketches, master works and problematic works spanning Rousseau’s entire career as an artist. Regardless of how you feel about Rousseau’s work, this is one of those spectacularly curated exhibitions that allow us to see into the artist’s techniques, working styles, and artistic demons.

Although severely under-appreciated by the art establishment of his time, Théodore Rousseau was a pivotal figure in the history of art. A leader and founder of the Barbizon School of Painters (named for the village of Barbizon, France, near the Forest of Fontainebleau where he spent much of his career), Rousseau pushed the Romantic art movement towards Realism, and laid the groundwork for the Impressionists who followed.

Rousseau found refuge from external and internal turmoil in nature, in the forests, trees and landscapes around him. The 1800s were a time of rapid change, and a source of anxiety and disappointment for everyone: wars raged across Europe and abroad; the industrial revolution became entrenched in daily life; and Rousseau suffered so many rejections from The Paris Salon, he was given the nickname “le grand refusé” (“the great refused”).

Closer to home, his wife suffered from debilitating bouts of mental illness—called “insanity” at the time. As his wife’s mental health grew more precarious, he took her for treatment. While absent, a young man who was a friend of the family and staying in his Barbizon home committed suicide there. Rousseau’s father (who outlived him), became financially dependent on him and Rousseau’s own health deteriorated. After his death, his lifelong friend and fellow artist, Jean-François Millet, assumed responsibility for Rousseau’s wife.

Rousseau was somewhat of a mystic, and said the trees spoke to him. He took his sketchpads into the forest and drew directly from nature. Unlike other artists of the time, he treated his sketches with the same reverence as he treated his art—as artistic works in their own right. In an effort to capture light and dark, mood and texture, Rousseau used mixed media on a variety of surfaces, allowing his gestures and painterly marks to add to the energy of his art.

Forest in Boisrémond (recto); Cottage in a Forest (verso); Théodore Rousseau (French, 1812 - 1867); 1842; Black chalk on laid paper (recto); graphite (verso); 28.1 × 45 cm (11 1/16 × 17 11/16 in.); 2002.3

Forest in Boisrémond (recto); Cottage in a Forest (verso); Théodore Rousseau (French, 1812 – 1867); 1842; Black chalk on laid paper (recto); graphite (verso); 28.1 × 45 cm (11 1/16 × 17 11/16 in.); 2002.3

Rousseau’s sketches in the exhibition are immediate and visceral. It is wonderful to see how he blocked in the perspective and ignored overlapping lines (which, of course, no one would notice unless you were looking carefully).

One of my favorites in the exhibition is a pairing of a sketch next to the finished oil painting on one wall of the gallery. The detailed sketch, [Under the Birches, Evening, 1842, Black chalk on brown wove paper, Toledo, Museum of Art, Frederick B.and Kate L. Shoemaker Fund, 1976.8, Catalogue number 20] is lively, serene and pleasant. At first glance, the finished oil painting, [Evening (The Parish Priest), 1842–43, Oil on panel, Toledo Museum of Art, gift of Arthur J.Secor, 1933.37, Catalogue number 21] looks to be a faithful studio rendering of the sketch, except that the mood of the painting is substantially different. It’s not simply the addition of color that creates the quiet melancholy. Closer examination between the two reveals where Rousseau changed the mode by subtly changing the details. He removed some leaves from this branch, reduced the size and altered the round shape of one of the trees, slightly reduced the width of the trunks, emphasized the crooks and turns of the trunks, and more, to achieve the effect he wanted, without changing the habit or growth patterns of the trees themselves.

Rousseau was able to complete sketches and drawings outdoors with no problem, but agonized over whether or not a canvas in the studio was finished. A fellow artist and neighbor in Barbizon, Jules Dupré, would sometimes sneak into the studio and take a painting away to prevent Rousseau from overworking it. Many of his canvases have areas that are executed in great detail, while other areas are barely developed.

In the exhibition it is readily apparent (and delightful) to see Rousseau’s finished paintings that are clearly overworked, against those which are not. His overworked paintings are beautifully executed, but clearly have all the life sucked out of them. A brilliant visual lesson for all artists who labor over the “is it done?” question!

Rousseau loved music, especially Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann. Like Beethoven, Rousseau’s inspiration came from long walks in the woods. The Getty has free headphone and players available for use while viewing the exhibition that plays music by composers who inspired Rousseau. Los Angeles Philharmonic guest conductor Nicholas McGegan curated the playlist of works by Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and others.

In my opinion, Rousseau’s trees are portrayed with weathered wisdom and a great melancholy sadness. They are trees that speak eloquently to our time as well as his.

“I listen to the voices of the trees… I discover their passions. The artist’s soul must become filled with the infinity of nature.” ­­­—Théodore Rousseau

Unfortunately, the Studio workshop and my Tree Drawing workshop at The Getty in conjunction with the Rousseau exhibition are past. The Getty still has, however, upcoming events related to the exhibition, including:

COMMUNITY PARTNER EVENT Mozart, Weber and Schumann Conductor Nicholas McGegan leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program of music inspired by the personal taste of Théodore Rousseau, a true “mélomane,” or music lover. Videos made in collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum will provide insight into the artist’s relationship with the music that fired the passions of his Romantic generation. Thursday, August 18, 8:00 p.m. Hollywood Bowl

“The Great Landscape Painter of our Time”: Théodore Rousseau and the Imaging of 19th-Century France Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art at the St. Louis Art Museum, explores Rousseau’s central position in 19th-century French landscape painting. Kelly questions the dominant narrative of plein-air naturalism surrounding his work, instead arguing for a more complex view of an artist producing deeply meditated imagery, drawing on a broad range of interests that includes literature, music, and philosophy. Kelly also places Rousseau’s output within the context of the Barbizon artistic colony which included his close friend, Jean-François Millet. Sunday, August 21, 2:00 p.m. Getty Center: Museum Lecture Hall

The exhibition, Unruly Nature: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau, has been co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

The J. Paul Getty Museum is located at: North Sepulveda Blvd and Getty Center Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90049. Hours and fees can be found here.

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