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Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña (French, 1808-1876)

Foret de Fontainbleau

Signed "Diaz" l.r.

Oil on board, 8 x 12 in.

antique Barbizon frame



Narcisse Diaz, a French landscape and figure painter and founding member of the avant-garde Barbizon school, was born in Bordeaux of Spanish parents. His parents were refugees from Joseph Bonaparte's Spain.  By the age of ten, he was a penniless orphan in the care of a priest at Bellevue near Paris.(1).  The young Narcisse, who had lost one of his legs to blood poisoning, was apprenticed as a pottery decorator in Paris at the age of 15, which may account for his later predilection for bright colors and his rather free draftsmanship. His handicap, and its impact on his mobility, were to be determinant in the course of his future career. As was a common practice, Narcisse learned to paint at the Louvre, where he was drawn to the works of the colorists. His early inspiration came most notably from Correggio, whose Antiope he repeated and interpreted in his own Nymphe Endormie (also in The Louvre).

Among his contemporaries, Narcisse had two spiritual fathers: Eugène Delacroix with his orientalist nymphs, Turks and Bohemians, and Théodore Rousseau, with whom he became friends at Barbizon in 1836 and who gave him a taste for the Dutch masters. Narcisse first exhibited at the Salon between 1831 and 1837. From 1837 to 1844, he was a founding member of the Barbizon school, named for a small village at the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. It was during this period that his future greatness became manifest. During the ensuing years, he was awarded three Salon gold medals for painting, and, in 1851, was named a Knight of the Legion of Honor. At the 1846 Salon, Narcisse's entries garnered the praise of Théophile Gautier: "There is in painting, as in music, a purely sensual side, in which the eye delights in the color - as the ear delights in the note - for its own value and sonority ... A major green or a minor yellow are delicacies which charm the eye. One can but admire the love of hues for their own sake which Diaz manifests, and on which his reputation rests." With the Salon of 1848, the Barbizon School of painters became a definite, recognized entity, dominating French landscape painting through the late 1860's.

Prior to the nineteenth century, artists drew but rarely painted out of doors. By the middle of the century, the painting of small outdoor studies was common to Corot and the Barbizon school, and to the "Pre-Impressionist" painters, Eugène Boudin and J.-B. Jongkind who were active in Normandy. Théodore Rousseau had been the first to settle in Barbizon in 1836 where he had escaped, discouraged by his lack of success at the Salons. Diaz, Millet, Jacque, and scores of others had later joined him in the tiny village surrounded on three sides by a plain stretching as far as the eye could see. At Barbizon, Rousseau, Diaz and their friends had rediscovered nature together with Corot and Daubigny. Although the individual methods and concepts of the Barbizon painters differed considerably, they had in common a complete devotion to nature and a desire to be faithful to their observations. Diaz excelled in somber woodland interiors in which spots of light or strips of sky shining through the branches would create dramatic contrasts. A fanatic adversary of line as well as of the slick academic technique, he loved color and the rough texture of heavily-applied paint. François-Louis Français recounts the days spent at Barbizon and neighboring Chailly: "We were quite a group there and we were full of high spirits! Diaz, Rousseau, Barye, Decamps, Corot. Ladis, too, of course! Ah! what gaiety, my friends, what laughs! Each morning Corot, who had a good voice, would awaken us, greeting the dawn with an opera aria or a song."

According to all reports, Narcisse was exceptionally kind to his fellow artists and to the young Impressionists. There seems to have been nothing in Diaz' mind which was not kindly and generous. Always cheerful in spite of his lameness, he was "obliging, good-natured, and gentle as a lamb with those whom he liked. He was not jealous of his contemporaries and sometimes bought their pictures, which he showed and praised to everyone." Diaz immediately took a great liking to Renoir, whose admiration for his elder mentor grew as he came to know him better. Aware of Renoir's precarious financial situation (at Gleyre's studio, he had often picked up the tubes thrown away by others and squeezed them to the very last drop), Diaz put his own paint-dealer's charge account at the disposal of his young friend and thus discreetly provided him with pigments and canvas. As to the advice he gave Renoir, it seems that Diaz told him "no self-respecting painter ever should touch a brush if he has no model under his eyes," although this was hardly the way in which he proceeded himself. On another occasion, a young Claude Monet had sold his Garden of the Princess to a Monsieur Latouche, who had a small paint shop where his artist customers would gather in the evening. Latouche placed the painting in his shop window for viewing by passers-by. Daumier impatiently summoned Latouche to take this "horreur" out of the window, while Diaz manifested great enthusiasm and predicted that Monet would go far.

 Narcisse's handicap made it impossible for him to realize his plans for distant travel. His movements were limited to the environs of Barbizon, whose deep forest became his preferred theme. Impressionism slipped into mid-century painting and crept forward at a time when Barbizon art was considered the natural way of seeing. Well into the 20th century, until Impressionism took over, the art of Diaz, Corot, Daubigny, Théodore Rousseau and Millet constituted the natural vision of the world, the most sought-after art in Western culture.

Collections of Diaz de la Peña's paintings are in The Louvre, The Reims Museum, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (which has A Clearing in the Forest of Fontainebleau), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and his Valley Marsh at the Cincinnati Art Museum. There is a significant collection in Paris (32 at the Louvre), in London (four at the National Gallery, four at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and three in the Wallace Collection), and at The Hague (eight at the Mesdag Museum).

Biography from Westbrook Galleries:

 Blue Hill Bay Gallery   11 Tenney Hill, Blue Hill, Maine 04614