At a time when many institutions are seriously discussing deaccessioning and other radical means of keeping afloat, the Clark can boast of a fascinating new acquisition, Théodore Rousseau’s La Ferme dans les Landes – La Maison du Garde (oil on canvas, 64.5 x 99.1 cm; 25.4 x 39 in.). While the Clark has several charming small works from the Barbizon School, it has been on the lookout for a major, representative painting. It appeared with the Matthiesen Gallery, first at Maastricht and later in their London galleries, as well as with its co-owner Mark Brady, through whom the museum acquired it.
This heavily worked landscape had a most curious genesis—which was nonetheless characteristic of the artist. Rousseau had a penchant for plein-air painting from an early age, and he became known as one of its luminaries, but he firmly, even obsessively believed that the height of art was a laborious perfection achieved over many years. He once said that “A man should be bold enough, faithful enough, rich enough, to produce only one prodigious work; so that this work should be a masterpiece.” About La Ferme dans les Landes in particular Rousseau said that “this work is for me the object of serious thought and bittersweet study: sweet in so far that it originates from the most harmonious accord of my faculties, and leads me logically on the strength only of a first impression to a full realization of form; bitter in that it is out of step with the speed of execution that characterises our time, and the flippant judgements that people make of works of art, and also because I ask myself for whom would I make such pictures without feeling a sense that my efforts were wasted on any collector.” La Ferme is one of three landscapes orginating in Rousseau’s impressions during his travels in the Landes (SW France) in 1844—his Trinité de tourments, over which he continued to labor for the rest of his life. (Of the other two, Le Village de Becquigny, is now in the Frick Collection, New York, and Le Four Communal, is in the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig.)
A pencil sketch on canvas now in a private collection documents his original impression. Subsequently, he began work on it in his studio. His patron, Frédéric Hartmann, a wealthy Alsatian businessman, purchased the painting in 1852, but he was only able to take possession of it after Rousseau’s death in 1867. The painter expected it to be finished in time for the Salon of 1857, but he decided not to submit it and continued to work on it throughout the next year. At the time of the 1859 salon, when Rousseau, who was in deep financial trouble, finally submitted it, Hartmann encouraged him to sell it to another buyer, with the proviso that he paint an equivalent work for himself. Rousseau refused. He began to work the painting yet further in the 1860s, most intensively in the autumn of 1863, in response to criticism and to concern with the effect of changing light on its layers of pigment. He was vitally concerned with achieving a work which would not change with the light in which it was viewed.
While Hartmann was clearly distressed at the time that passed as Rousseau continued to labor over the three paintings, he encouraged the painter’s meticulous attention to detail. The great Dutch landscapists of the seventeenth century were his ideal, and he saw in them the genius of Hobbema. Hence he was forever urging Rousseau to emulate him, Jacob van Ruisdael, Paulus Potter, Cuyp, and others. At Rousseau’s death, when he came to claim the paintings he had bought and paid for years before, he still didn’t consider them finished, and he hired Rousseau’s intimate friend, Millet, to add some final touches. The handsome book produced by Matthiesen (Théodore Rousseau : a Magnificent Obsession : La Ferme dans les Landes, or, La Maison du Garde, edited by Andrea Gates, London : Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd., 2009) claims that no trace of alien pigments or the intervention of another hand can be found. However, Millet and Rousseau were so close, that we can assume that Millet was thoroughly familiar with his working methods. Rousseau himself was known to use incompatible paints during his drawn-out creative process.
La Ferme dans les Landes belonged to a Monsieur Tauber, when, in 1939, the French government sent it to South America with a travelling exhibition of French art from a variety of small museums and private collections. When the war broke out, it was arranged for the paintings to go to the United States for safekeeping, where they were exhibited in a number of galleries and museums, including the National Gallery in Washington. After the war it was “restituted” to an heir of Tauber’s, Monsieur Baveret who sold it to a Parisian collector who bequeathed it to Portuguese heirs—and that was the last time it was seen publicly, or its whereabouts known, until Simon Kelly published it in the Burlington Magazine (Vol. 143, No. 1184 (Nov. 2001), pp. 687-690). It was subsequently sold at Christie’s, London on June 26, 2007.
La Ferme is quite as Hobbemesque as Le Village de Becquigny, which immediately conjures up the great Avenue at Middelharnis in the National Gallery, London. However, the force of recognition does not quite play such a potent role of La Ferme’s effect. It could recall any number of similar works by Hobbema or others. The composition is dominated by the enormous trees which shelter the farmyard (or airial, as it was called in the local dialect). In an intimate side-gallery at the Clark, devoted largely to small Barbizon paintings, La Ferme is flanked by two small landscapes by Rousseau. The contrast is striking. In the small works, which are almost oil sketches, Rousseau’s eye seems to take in the entire space at once, from back to front and from left to right, in a sort of rapid, but easy circle. In these he remains close to his early inspiration in Constable and the freer work of the Dutch, for example Ruisdael. In La Ferme the motion of our eyes is contained within each field on the flat surface of the canvas. Our eyes are forced to take in each detail without expanding out beyond it—not even into its immediate context, much less the whole. The only area of the canvas that shows a sense of depth is the narrow strip below the foliage of the great trees, in which the trunks of the forest behind them extend back into the distance in marked recession, recalling the obsessions of the Renaissance students of la dolce prospettiva, especially Paolo Uccello’s Hunt in the Forest (Ashmolean Museum). The effect is jarring, almost surreal. The sense of plein air remains in a conceptualized form, while the air itself, so abundantly implied in the small works, has all but vanished. Natural textures like the wood of the old gate or of branches and fallen trunks do not so much suggest real objects surrounded by space as the facture of Rousseau’s Dutch models. I say this not to disparage the picture, but to point out how radically different its aesthetic is from Rousseau’s work in the field. He embraced both, just as his friend Millet combined reduction and artfice with a seductive feeling of a particular time, rural place, and atmosphere. As Rousseau worked away on this painting, which he obviously considered of the highest importance, his memory of his trip to the Landes, a region which made such a powerful impression on him, receded further and further into the past. The time and place we experience is far from the epiphany he sketched; it is rather a constructed amalgam of a recorded memory with his many years at Barbizon and the Holland of two centuries before.
This is entirely in harmony with Rousseau’s rather peculiar description of the three paintings as “an eclogue devoted to Light, in three odes.” Rousseau’s understanding of literature may not have been all that refined, but his reference to the classical genre of the eclogue affirms the artificiality of his purposes, as the eclogue was a highly cultivated, city-bred evocation of simple pastoral life. His reference to the ode, if it makes any sense at all, presumably refers to expressions like the shepherds’ songs which abound in the pastoral tradition, as both the heartfelt outpouring of a simple soul as well as display of craft.