The Big Tree, Oil on canvas, 1863
The Big Tree, painted by the infamous Camille Corot (1796-1875), is a work that belongs stylistically to the Barbizon School of Landscape Painting. The Barbizon School had its beginnings in, and derives its name from, the village of Barbizon, which is located near France’s Fontainebleau Forest south of Paris. The area’s natural environment served as inspiration for the Barbizon painters who recognized landscape as an independent and worthy subject in high art. Of the painters inspired by forest near Barbizon, Camille Corot would later become the most influential. Sometimes revered as the father of Barbizon Landscape painting, he and fellow Barbizon School artists were some of the very first to paint “en plein air” – a French term meaning “outdoors” or “in the open air.” This was made possible by the invention of putting paint into tubes, which were easily portable and thus freed painters from the confines of the studio. This would prove to be extremely important for painters of later generations, especially the Impressionists. In fact, it can be said that the expressive, yet muted landscapes of the Barbizon School were effectively precursors to the even more expressive and colorful works by the Impressionists.
Although visibly more reserved than the Impressionist works that would follow them, Barbizon Landscape Paintings, especially those by Corot, began to slowly move away from Realism – an artistic style then in vogue. Indeed, Corot’s works represent the landscapes to which he bore witness, yet in painting them he had no intention of recording nature. Instead, he painted the world as he experienced it – a revolutionary idea that would later be picked up and expanded upon by the Impressionists. In this way, Corot’s approach to “realism” was in direct opposition to that which was seen in earlier styles of French painting.
In The Big Tree, Corot employs a muted color palette consisting of browns as well as various shades of blues and greens. As its title suggests, the canvas is dominated by a large tree that dwarfs all other elements in the painting. In the background, a distant village is juxtaposed in front of foothills that are located even further away. Through the inclusion of such a low horizon line, the sky, although veiled by the tree on the painting’s right side, encompasses about three-quarters of the picture plane. The large billowing cloud in the background (left) mimics the form of the large tree in the foreground, effectively uniting the two areas of space. However, Corot masterfully keeps the viewer’s eye contained, through the tree’s large over-reaching branch, in the lower left-hand corner of the painting, where a small creek flows into the middle ground. Indeed, due to Corot’s loose and expressive brushwork, forms appear to be blurred. A technique such as this allows for the depiction of movement, as can be seen, or perhaps more appropriately, experienced, in the wind blowing through the branches of The Big Tree.