Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The vines left out of the scene

Jean-François Millet, Trussing Hay, 1850

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Haywagon, 1830s to 1860s (?)

Theodore Rousseau, Landscape with a Plowman, 1860-1862

Gustave Courbet, Lunch Break During the Haying, 1867

You've probably heard that Europe was covered in vines before the louse phylloxera found its way to the Continent and devasted the vineyards there in fairly short order. It's mentioned fairly frequently, the part about a Europe covered in vines. The first phylloxera outbreak is thought to have been in the Southern Rhône in 1863 and the change was soon dramatic. The Oxford Companion to Wine places the total wine production of France in 1889 as less than 30% of what it had been in 1875. And as modern consumption habits changed, a considerable amount of what had once been planted was never replanted after the attack. The vineyard area of France never fully recouped from the purge.
So the question might be asked, where were the vines? Not the planted vines but the painted ones. With vineyards planted to the horizon, you might expect to come across a wide variety of depictions. The 19th century was an expansive time for French landscape painters. Millet, Rousseau, and Corot amongst the Barbizon School. Gustave Courbet the Realist. Even Edouard Manet painted a bit of landscape. Landscape painting was a major undertaking of mid-19th century French art. And it would continue to be a major theme of the Impressionists towards the turn of the century. But you don't see vines amongst their work.

Theodore Rousseau, The Large Oak Tree, Forest of Fontainebleau, 1839

Gustave Courbet, Forest in Autumn, 1841

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Willows of Marissel, 1857

Jean-Francois Millet, Spring Landscape with Rainbow Sky, 1868-1873

Admittedly the area around Barbizon, where several mid-19th century landscape painters worked, is more known for wheat fields and forest than vines. And it is true that I have seen two paintings from Millet that depict grapevines. But it is just those two that I can find from an entire 100 years of French landscape painting. Nothing from Courbet. Nothing from Corot. Nothing from Monet. No vines from Van Gogh. I'm not saying that vineyard paintings from these artists absolutely don't exist, and I am no art historian, but I certainly haven't been able to find others paintings that depict vines. And I have looked. Two paintings from Millet, an artist who lived to be 60 years old, is a very small amount of his total production. Two paintings from a century's worth of French paintings is pretty much almost none. Paintings of vineyards don't start to be a commonplace until the second half of the 20th century.

Theodore Rousseau, Panoramic Landscape, 1831-1834

Jean-Francois Millet, The Cousin in Greville, 1855

Gustave Courbet, The Valley of Ornans, 1858

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Vale, 1855-1860

Edouard Manet, Landscape with a Village Church, early 1870s

I think we place in a landscape what we wish to revere. Classical themes. Biblical stories. Military battles. Peasant workers. Sunlight. A nature given over to a painter is a nature created for an audience. And it doesn't have to be the what of the painting, it can also be the how. You knew the 20th century would focus on the technique of painting as soon as the Impressionists stepped outdoors. They put paint in the landscape for emphasis. But the history of nature in paintings is a history of painting in the important subjects of a time.

It's surprising what was deemed to be pastoral. There were all those vines everywhere, but none made it onto the walls of the Salons. I can only imagine that the grapevines weren't deemed fit to be seen. Perhaps we train them differently now, because the way we look at them is clearly not the same.

Nowadays we might assume that he is reading a treatise on soil composition.

1 comment:

Steven said...

Great piece, Levi. Makes me long for a time machine and mastery of French.