Wooden stump and iron will

Narcisse Diaz. He lived in Barbizon, a small French village that gave the name “Barbizon School of Painting” to a group of artists clustering around Millet, who also lived here and who was one of the biggest influences on Van Gogh. Van Gogh copied about two dozen of Millet paintings, and people often do not know that it is a copy of Millet when they marvel at a Van Gogh. Well, many do not know Millet at all.

So, back to our Narcisse. This is his house. You’d say he must have been a lucky and prosperous artist well recognised during his life-time? Well, not exactly.

When he was a kid, he lost his parents. Shortly afterwards a snake bite made him a one-legged cripple. His childhood was a fast on bread and water mixed with a lot of preaching from the protestant priest who was raising him. When he was 15 he decided to become a painter. In 1830s young artists worshipped Theodore Rousseau. Customers did not. Diaz was idolizing Rousseau as well and went as far as Barbizon to learn landscaping from this great man, who was one of the first artists to put his easel outside of the studio.

Diaz was 24, and eager. Rousseau was 20, and bitter. So, the 20 year old “God” told the 24 year old adept to get lost. Rousseau did not want an apprentice with effusive craziness in the eyes.

Rousseau would take his stuff and go to the Fontainebleau forest to paint, away from crazy followers, peasant villagers, haughty academics and customers who preferred Greek myths and reclining nudes to romantic landscapes.

The forest of Fontainebleau is a natural wonder about an hour by train from Paris. I tried to capture some of its fairytale character in this picture:

Having been rejected, Diaz began stalking Rousseau, jumping through the undergrowth on his wooden stump, hiding behind trees, and watching his “god” working sketches. Today, Rousseau could get a court order against Diaz and that would be the end of it. Almost two hundred years ago the stalking tactics worked, Rousseau had melted and taught the older apprentice everything he knew about painting.

And Diaz went ahead of his teacher with Fontainebleau landscapes such as this one:

The two artists first met in 1831. It took Diaz twenty more years to get his paintings exhibited at the official Salon. And it took some further twenty years for art collectors to discover the artist. Thus, by the age of sixty Diaz had become more or less known and could buy the house you can see in my photograph.

Today, his paintings (50 by 60 cm) cost about $50-60K. His works could be found in the National Gallery in London, in D’Orsay Museum in Paris and even in the Louvre.

Diaz had an idea of merging the landscape approach of the 18th century (big powerful trees + wide vistas +  mystery of the deep woods + cute peasants doing their cute little peasantry jobs) with the style of painting modern at his time (open-air, capturing light, especially broken light, experimenting with colour, using brushstrokes’ size and direction to show movement, etc.) Like in this picture:

Ot in this one:

And only five years after Diaz got the taste of success, when he was 70, he got a cold while visiting the grave of his son. That cold, eventually (and very soon) killed him.

PS Stand by for Millet vs.Van Gogh post. It would be interesting and fun.

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