Martin Johnson HEADE  
United States of America 1819 � 1904-09-04  
Sunlight and shadow: the Newbury Marshes c.1871-75, oil on canvas National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. John Wilmerding Collection (Promised Gift). Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Théodore ROUSSEAU | Under the birches, evening [Sous les hêtres le soir]

ROUSSEAU, Théodore
Paris 1812 – Barbizon 1867
Under the birches, evening
[Sous les hêtres le soir]
[also known as The priest [Le Curé]]
oil on wood panel
42.2 (h) x 64.5 (w) cm
frame 61.6 (h) x 83.8 (w) x 8.3 (d) cm
Collection: Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Gift of Arthur J. Secor
VIEW: Article |
Turner to Monet

Rousseau began to paint Under the birches, evening in Berry in central France, at the lowest point of his official artistic career. After initial success at the Paris Salon from 1831 to 1835, all of his works were refused between 1836 and 1841. Discouraged, he then refrained from submitting works to the jury until after the 1848 Revolution, when the selection system was reformed. The artist then received an official commission, subsequent acceptance at the Salon, and honours from the state. In the early 1840s, however, when this painting was executed, Rousseau’s dreams of winning the Prix de Rome were over; nonetheless he continued to paint, in his own way.

The atmosphere and charm of Under the birches, evening also characterise the artist’s better-known sojourns in the Forest of Barbizon, a place identified with Rousseau for three decades. In summer he worked outdoors in a little hut made for him, painting studies and sketches that were then finished in his studio in Paris.1 Most striking in the composition of Under the birches, evening is the theatrical presentation of a central clump of trees, birches bright with autumnal foliage and their unique black-and-white bark. The dark foreground is echoed by the steel blue–grey fading light of day, changing as night begins to fall. Light is concentrated upon a central oval, where a slight narrative interest is given by human presence in the form of the humble curé. No means of entry is provided to the viewer, however, no path, rising hill nor descent into a valley. The grove is presented as a visual fait accompli, a feature that struck the artist’s eye full-on.

Rousseau’s debt to seventeenth-century Dutch landscape is obvious in his division of the canvas into three horizontal bands, concentrating on the middle ground, and his stubborn portrayal of the unexceptional, anti-Romantic theme. Contemporary English masters – Constable, Bonington, Turner – awoke painters in France to the importance of exact depictions of changing conditions: light, atmosphere, times of day. For Rousseau, the lessons of past Dutch and present English art meant a continuing attachment to his own country and its unique landscapes. There is nowhere more satisfying to be than here, under these trees at this moment, and no finer artist than Rousseau to describe the scene for us.

Christine Dixon

1 Théodore Rousseau 1812–1867, Paris: Réunion des musée nationaux, 1967, cat. 22, p. 35.