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theodore rousseau-underthebirches1842-43

Theodore Rousseau- Under The Birches 1842



It is better in art to be honest than clever.

–Theodore Rousseau



Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) was part of the Barbizon school of painters, an art movement in 19th century France that was instrumental in moving away from from the traditional formalism that was prevalent in art up to that point and towards naturalism and artistic expression of emotion. It was very influential on many of the painters who later created the Impressionist movement.

Rousseau and Jean-Francois Millet, best known for his peasant scenes, were the two artists from this school whose work really spoke to me, seeming to have honest emotional content in them. Perhaps that is why his short quote resonated so strongly with me. That and the fact that I have found myself less impressed with cleverness than honest expression through the years. I have always believed that art comes from tapping into the subconscious, something other than the part of our brain that produces conscious thought.

I guess I just don’t think we are that smart. Or clever.

I know I am not.

My work is at its best when it comes from a place of honesty and real emotion, when it is made with more intuition than forethought. When it is too thought out and directed it begins to feel stilted and contrived, losing its naturalness and rhythm and becoming heavy-handed.

That is probably the reason I tell young or beginning painters to focus not so much on the actual idea or subject of a painting but more on things like paint handling and color quality, those things that make up the surface of a painting and convey the real meaning of the painting.

And I think that is what Rousseau was probably getting at in his terse quote.

But maybe not. Like I said, I am not that clever.



This post ran about six years ago and like they say, some things never change. I certainly haven’t gained any cleverness and I still believe that honest emotion is the basis of all impactful art. But what do I know?

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