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The son of a tailor, Theodore Rousseau was introduced to art at an early age by his sculptor uncle, Lemaire (1824-1910), and later his cousin, landscape painter Paul de Saint-Martin (? -1817). Encouraged by his early works (View of the Montmartre Cemetry and Telegraph), he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he was the pupil of Jean-Charles Rémond (1795-1875) followed by Lethière (1760-1832). Soon disillusioned by Academic teaching, he preferred to copy landscape painters in the Louvre – French, such as Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), Dutch, such as Ruysdael and, above all, English, such as Constable (1776-1837) and Bonington (1802-1828).
From the 1830s onwards, Rousseau became a passionate and appreciative interpreter of nature. The Romantic landscapes that he brought back from his numerous study trips (to the Auvergne, Honfleur, Jura, Vendée and Landes) reveal his interest in the luminosity of sea skies, rock formations, trees (Avenue of Chestnut Trees, 1841), and changing light and weather conditions. And yet, despite his great talent, his very personal interpretation of nature meant that he was systematically rejected by the Salon after 1831 and lost popularity with the general public.
From 1842, Rousseau stopped offering his canvases to the Salon, even though he had some ardent defenders, including Diaz and Dupré. Fascinated by the forest of Fontainebleau, for the first time in the history of French painting, he painted a winter landscape entirely on the spot (Hoarfrost, 1846).
He settled in Barbizon after the Revolution of 1848. The Salon opened its doors to him once again and helped him win a commission from the state, Leaving the Forest, Fontainebleau. He experienced great success at the Universal Exhibition of 1855, where a whole room was dedicated to him. Yet he preferred the peace and quiet of Barbizon, where his friends, Millet in particular, came to visit him. In 1860, he attempted to recreate the luminosity of air by juxtaposing comma-shaped brushstrokes of pure color, but he was soon seduced by Impressionism.
The popularity of his work earned him a huge fortune, which enabled him to buy some rare Rembrandt proofs and some Japanese prints. Rousseau, whose career started at the time of Romanticism and flourished at the time of realism, of which he was one of the masters, was the model for a whole generation of landscape painters. He had a strong influence on the early careers of Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and Renoir.
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