Théodore Rousseau, L’allée de châtaigniers


Théodore Rousseau (1812 - 1867) was both a pariah and a hero. He was one of the greatest nature painters of the late 19th Century, at the beginning of the industrial revolution in France, hugely influential with the young impressionist painters, but kept outside of the “official” art world by his conservative peers and by critics. As a young painter, he turned his back on the traditional “cursus” of established painters of that generation, whom he found too conventional and boring, by deciding not to travel to Italy to perfect his apprenticeship, as was the custom at the time. Instead, Rousseau liked going to the Louvre to observe and copy Claude Lorrain, whom he admired greatly, as well as English nature painters.


Une Avenue, Forêt de L’Ile Adam.


Until Rousseau, nature was seen merely as a backdrop to religious scenes or scenes of daily life. It was there to highlight human presence, just a decor, seen from above or, often, imaginary landscapes. The young painter, who claimed he could “hear the voice of trees”,  completely reversed this view point. Nature is the very subject of his paintings. Not only are humans absent from them, but Rousseau puts the viewer in the position of someone entering a forest or a clearing. Humans are surrounded by trees, not outside of them, trees dominate us by their huge size. The viewer is immersed in the forest, like in L’Allée de châtaigners. The process is arduous. Sometimes Rousseau could be working on a painting for several years. 

Rousseau’s passion for forests and nature goes back to a trip the young Théodore took with his father to visit a friend in Franche-Comté, in Northeastern France. The walks in the region’s forests had a very powerful impact on him. Afterwards, instead of following traditional art classes which he finds uninspiring, he went on walks in nature around France: Auvergne, Cantal, Normandie, Jura, Vendée, Berry, Pyrénées, even Switzerland. Even though his paintings were very popular with collectors and art patrons, in 1936 critics refused to accept his submission to the Salon. His style was despised by the critics of the day. Ironically, his status of pariah of the official art world enhanced his stature outside of bourgeois circles. Théodore Rousseau was seen as “Europe’s greatest landscape painter” and his paintings bought by prestigious collectors.

For 13 years, Rousseau self-exiled himself from the Salon. He moved to a small village on the edge of the Fontainebleau forest, Barbizon, where he was surrounded by a group of like minded painters like Jean-François Millet, who became his closest friend. That’s where he spent the rest of this life.


Groupe de Chênes, Apremont.

Rousseau’s love for nature made him one of the very first ecologists. He became the most vocal defender of the vast and ancient Fontainebleau forest which was being logged. In several of his paintings, he denounced what he calls “the carnage”, like in  Le massacre des innocents. By appealing to the government, Rousseau managed, in 1861, to save part of the forest and have it protected. 

His paintings resonate strongly with today’s viewers. Their way of depicting trees, of rendering them so majestic and awe inspiring could help us reconsider our connection with nature, reminding us we are not above it, but a part of it. Théodore Rousseau’s work also demonstrates the crucial role played by art in awakening the worldwide ecological consciousness. He was truly a pioneer. 

Jean-Sébastien Stehli


Clairière dans la Haute Futaie, Forêt de Fontainebleau.

 Théodore Rousseau, La Voix de la Forêt. Petit Palais. Until July 7, 2024.


Sortie de Forêt à Fontainebleau, soleil couchant.

Jean Sebastien Stehli