The Great Oaks of Old Bas-Bréau, 1864
Théodore Rousseau, French, 1812–1867
Oil on canvas
35 1/2 × 46 in. (90.2 × 116.8 cm) frame: 46 1/4 × 56 3/4 × 3 1/2 (117.5 × 144.1 × 8.9 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
The Great Oaks of Old Bas-Breau
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Research the Industrial Revolution and its impact on culture
- Understand different artworks as products of changing cultures
- Present research findings and original arguments
Connecting to the Work of Art
A pioneer of French landscape painting, Rousseau was the leader of a group of painters known as the Barbizon School because of their proximity to the small village of Barbizon, France, outside the picturesque Forest of Fontainebleau. Rousseau worked regularly in the forest from 1836 until 1848 when he moved to the village of Barbizon, where he became friends with several other artists working in the same manner. Rousseau, however, was not always successful and, in the beginning of his career, his radical style barred him from numerous Salon exhibitions. Rousseau’s continual exclusion from the mainstream art world earned him the nickname, “le grand refusé.”
Painted during the last few years of Rousseau’s life, The Great Oaks of Old Bas-Bréau is an ode to the giant aged oaks that dominate the landscape of the Forest of Fontainebleau. With a palette primarily of greens and yellows, Rousseau highlighted the wild branches and gnarled limbs of the trees. Emphasizing their grandeur, he has placed a small hunter, bathed in light, at the edge of the forest. This scene, like many of Rousseau’s images of the forest, was meant to convey a sense of nostalgia for the timeless ways of rural life and the cycles of weather and the seasons.
Rousseau found the style of traditional French landscape painting stifling. He sought to express his passionate feelings for nature by ignoring history and basing his work on his own observations of familiar surroundings. Rousseau asserted that his meticulous depictions of the majestic oaks of Fontainebleau were actually portraits of the trees which were created by listening to their voices.
With Rousseau at the helm, the members of the Barbizon School sought to revolutionize landscape painting by initiating a new approach to the genre that would supersede hundreds of years of Classical French art. According to French tradition, developed by artists such as Claude Lorrain (see the MFAH’s Landscape with a Rock Arch and River), landscape pictures should be carefully composed, contain references to antiquity, and be set in an idealized Italian locale. Rousseau and the followers of the Barbizon School, however, believed sketches and other preparations for landscape paintings should be created outdoors and the final painting completed in the studio. Additionally, they took a communal approach to painting, and artists lived together, painting outdoors by day and discussing their work in the evenings. Soon the Barbizon artists would discover their efforts were not in vain— their approach would culminate in the radical work of the Impressionists later in the century.
As for many artists reacting to the industrialization of cities, the Forest of Fontainebleau held profound meaning for the Barbizon School artists and represented a radical contrast to the speed of modernity. Their interest in nature eventually spread to the city dwellers who, by the 1850s, were seeking an escape in landscape paintings of unspoiled nature.
- Look closely at the composition of Rousseau’s painting. What has he placed in the foreground, middle ground, and background of the composition? Where is the viewer positioned?
- Analyze the use of light and shadow in this painting. Where do you think the main light source in this scene is? Which parts of the composition are highlighted in the sunshine, and which are cloaked in shadow?
- Now, turn a careful eye to Rousseau’s brushstrokes. What techniques has he used to render the foliage and trunks of the forest? What words would you use to describe his mark-making—do you think it is precise, or more relaxed?
- Rousseau and the artists he worked with in Barbizon often completed the preparatory sketches for their paintings outside. How does Rousseau use this painting to communicate the sensory experience of the forest? What sights, smells, sounds, and feelings might accompany this scene?
- How would you characterize Rousseau’s use of color? What words might you use to describe the colors he chose for this painting?
- Look closely at the huntsman standing in the lower right-hand side of the painting. How would you describe him?
- Observe the way Rousseau juxtaposed the man with the forest. What techniques has he used to contrast man and nature? Why might he have chosen to present them in this way?
- Keeping in mind Rousseau’s use of color, light, and composition, how would you describe the overall mood or tone of this painting? Base your answer on visual clues in the artwork.
- Based on the visual evidence in this painting, how do you think Rousseau wanted his viewers to feel about this forest?
- In the mid-19th century, when this was painted, Europe was undergoing rapid industrialization—meaning that as urban size and population grew, access to natural resources was quickly diminishing. How might one view Rousseau’s painting as a reaction to this widespread urban shift?
- Rousseau and other painters in the so-called Barbizon school rejected traditional French landscape paintings. Compare this painting to Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with a Rock Arch and River, which exemplifies 17th-century French painting. How does Rousseau’s approach differ from Lorrain’s? Which techniques has he rejected, and which has he kept?
- After viewing Lorrain’s painting, consider again Rousseau’s brushwork in The Great Oaks of Old Bas-Bréau. What effect do they have on the landscape? How might this painting feel different if it were painted with more precise, smoothly blended strokes?
- Industrialization was running rampant during Rousseau’s career. This interest in technology, modernity, and “progress” directly affected the public’s interest in Rousseau’s paintings. Research the Industrial Revolution and its effects on the people both in and outside of urban centers. How might the Industrial Revolution have impacted public demand for landscape paintings? Explain your argument in a short essay, presentation, or class debate.
- The landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain, created over 200 years earlier, were in sharp contrast to those of Rousseau and the Barbizon School painters. Research the work of Claude Lorrain and compare his approach and interest to those of Rousseau. Do you think Rousseau is more modern than Claude? Explain your answer in a short essay, presentation, or class debate.
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The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.