Barye was primarily a sculptor, particularly of animal bronzes. In 1841 he began painting landscapes in oil, and by the end of the decade he was regularly visiting the forest of Fontainebleau, south-east of Paris, where he painted alongside members of the Barbizon group of landscape painters. Although Barye never exhibited his oil paintings, including this one, he did show his watercolours of animals such as lions, tigers and elephants, which were critically acclaimed.
Painted in the 1850s or 1860s, this small oil painting most likely shows a gorge in the forest at Fontainebleau. The scene feels dark and claustrophobic and evokes an almost primordial terrain. We are looking up at a gently sloping hillside, which is dotted with trees, rounded mossy rocks and larger more irregular boulders. Barye was particularly drawn to the more remote and desolate sites in and around the forest, and these landscapes also appear in many of his animal pictures.
Trained as a goldsmith, Barye was primarily a sculptor, particularly of animal bronzes, who was hailed as ‘the Michelangelo of the menagerie’ by the writer and critic Théophile Gautier. In 1841, when in his mid-forties, he began painting landscapes in oil, and by the end of the decade he was regularly visiting the forest of Fontainebleau. This was a popular location for artists in the mid-nineteenth century, especially the area in and around the village of Barbizon. At Fontainebleau he painted alongside members of the Barbizon group of landscape painters including Millet and Diaz. Barye never exhibited his oil paintings, which only became known to the public at a posthumous exhibition of his work in 1875 and at a sale in 1876 (which included 99 oil paintings).
Barye’s oils are characterised by dark colours and thick impasto paint to build up form and structure, his technique influenced by other Barbizon artists, especially Rousseau and Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (for whom Corot was to paint The Four Times of Day). But he also worked in watercolour, a medium in which he excelled, producing pictures of African and Asian animals such as lions, tigers and elephants. Unlike his oils, he did exhibit and sell his animal watercolours, which received critical acclaim. In his review of an exhibition in 1860 that included Barye’s watercolours, Gautier noted, ‘No one has mastered the wild animal like Barye. Was he a gladiator in some Roman circus? … With respect to tigers, only Delacroix and Méry are in Barye’s class.’
Painted in the 1850s or 1860s, this small picture most likely shows a gorge in the forest at Fontainebleau. We are looking up a gently sloping rocky hillside, which is dotted with trees (including a prominent silver birch in the right middle ground), rounded mossy rocks and larger, more irregular boulders. Barye was particularly drawn to the more remote and desolate sites in and around the forest such as the rocky gorges at Franchard and at Apremont (which he painted for a picture now in the Louvre). A solitary bird flies across the relatively small area of blue sky. Despite this patch of sky, the scene feels dark and claustrophobic – Gautier, for example, noted that even in Barye’s watercolours, ‘the landscape backgrounds lack air.’ Apart from occasional deer, Barye’s oil landscapes do not usually include people or animals, but instead evoke an almost primordial terrain. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the rocky landscapes of Fontainebleau appear in many of his animal pictures. An 1889 catalogue of his work observed that, ‘without straying far from Paris, he conceived many of his numerous watercolours … combining data borrowed from nature with his inner visions, he created little landscape settings of a strange and truly exotic character in which ferocious beasts seem to be at home.’
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