Diaz was a leading artist of the Barbizon School. He worked mainly in the Forest of Fontainebleau, which appears to be the inspiration for this picture. The title, 'Sunny Days in the Forest', has traditionally been given to the painting.
Steven Adams: It’s a painting by a Barbizon artist called Diaz de la Peña and he’s painted here a cluster of trees in the forest of Fontainebleau. It’s an interesting painting, because what’s distinctive about Barbizon art is that the compositions are different. If we step back a generation or two, we find a very different type of landscape painting that’s heavily stage managed. All of the figures would be classical heroes, Greek, Roman shepherds… the paintings are inspired by reading Virgil and classical poets and historians. People would have painted landscapes very much like a theatre, so we’d find trees on the left, a bit like the flats on a stage set. And here we have someone taking the trees and placing them right in the very centre of the landscape, so this is the very thing that you focus on, they’re the dominant part of the painting.
Leah Kharibian: And this is a landscape that’s quite local – it’s a French landscape – is that important?
Steven Adams: It’s enormously important, I think, because the training of landscape painters in the previous generation would have required that they went off to Rome and this was the place in which the best kind of landscape painting, the most intellectually respectable art was made. Now in the middle of the 1820s, the first generation of artists start to look… start to go to Barbizon and start to think about painting the French landscape. The generation before would have seen the French landscape as something that is really quite trivial – it’s not really intellectually respectable – and this generation say, here’s a landscape that’s worth recording.
Leah Kharibian: So is it a case that Parisians are also coming to this place?
Steven Adams: That’s absolutely the case, because between 1845 and 1849 it’s possible to get from the centre of Paris to Barbizon in the best part of half a day, so the journey from the centre of Paris to nearby Melun can be done in not much more than an hour. In the 1860s, there are jokes in magazines and they complain that hoards of Parisians descend on the forest, that people are whistling the latest refrain they’ve heard at operas in Paris, it’s dangerous to walk through the forests because you run the risks of tripping over an easel – there are all kinds of hazards.
Leah Kharibian: But there’s not a sign of any Parisians in this picture. I mean, Diaz has gone out of his way to pick something that looks very rural and he’s got a couple of peasants. You say there were lots of artists at Barbizon; were the local peasants in on the deal?
Steven Adams: They were. Barbizon is essentially a rural community, but in the 1830s and 1840s, I think, when hordes of artists come to Barbizon, when the art schools close for the summer, groups of young artists leave Paris and go for a retreat over the summer months – this is quite an important source of additional income for peasants that would have eked a relatively meagre living from the landscape.
Leah Kharibian: Now this picture was painted in the 1850s, but Barbizon as an artists’ colony lives on, doesn’t it?
Steven Adams: It lives on for some time, yes. In the 1860s and 70s, the younger generation of Impressionists were going to Barbizon and when Monet, I think in the 1864, goes off to the forest of Fontainebleau, this is the natural place for an aspiring young landscape painter to go. And then it continues in the 1870s and 1880s, American artists go to Fontainebleau, and this becomes the place to go, very much, if one wants to become a landscape painter. So in the same way that in the second half of the 20th century, New York was the place for ambitious painting, so in the 19th century, Barbizon remains the place to go for ambitious landscape painters.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Steven Adams, talking to Leah Kharibian.