"The Forest At Fountainbleu" (1864) by Virgile Narcisse Diaz de la Peña
BY BRIAN LIBBY
This Thursday (May 12) at 6PM at the Portland Art Museum, as part of the continuing Artist Talk series - in which local artists choose a work from the permanent collection that he or she loves and discusses why - I will have the honor of talking about a painting called "The Forest At Fountainbleu" by the French artist Virgile Narcisse Diaz de la Peña.
Although its exact year of provenance seems unknown (it is listed as 1864 in the museum, 1854 or 1859 in other academic sources), the painting has an arresting power over me. Although it's truly contemporary art in the Jubitz Center that attracts most of my attention, from the abstract desert views of local virtuoso James Lavadour to the blocky prints of Ellsworth Kelly and kaliedoscopic provocations by Gilbert & George, I always make a special stop in the museum's Belluschi Building to see this painting.
I hesitate to go into too much explanation in this post, on the eve of the museum talk. But perhaps it's worth noting that a central aspect of my love for "The Forest At Fountainbleu" is how it seems to lie at numerous types of intersections. In art history, it is part of the Barbizon School of French landscape paintings, a precursor to Impressionism that was similarly based on painters painting in open air before their subjects, abandoning the symbolism of meticuous academic painting from previous centuries for a kind of snapshot-style that relies more on the immediate surroundings - not unlike photography, which was becoming promenent for the first time during these same years.
The Barbizon painters, such as Theodore Rousseau and Diaz, most often painted in or near the Fountainbleu Forest. It was far enough outside Paris to bring a communion with nature, but close enough to visit with only an hour or two of travel - a close getaway. And you see this in Diaz's painting at the Portland Art Museum. In the center of the frame is a rickety dirt road leading to the horizon, bracketed by trees. Although firmly part of the broader Romantic movement, it's not as idealistic and manicured a version of nature as an English painter like John Constable might have chosen. You see nature in its beauty but also how it is being impacted by the encroach of development. And it's not a fuzzy soft-focused work of Impressionism either, even though its simplicity - the almost T shape of the central road and the horizon line - possesses a hint of abstraction.
This tension or dichotomy betwen nature and city has always been a particular area of interest for me. I grew up in a small Oregon town, McMinnville (which was then more of a truly tiny agricultural town, not tourist friendly wine country), and then at age 18 attended college at New York University. When I arrived in Manhattan that first freshman fall in 1990, it was my first time in the city. I'd never bothered (or been able) to visit first before choosing the school, so it was a veritable plunge into the deep end of urbanity's pool without quite knowing how to swim. In the long run it turned out to be the best thing I ever did, but in the short run it made for a culture shock that gave way to a romantic yearning for Oregon that I'd never had in all the years of backpacking with my parents through the Cascades growing up. Yet when I finally did return to pastoral McMinnville, it felt too small and isolated, with no good pizza or movie theaters or galleries. So that push-pull between the thrilling energy and vibrant cultural melting pot of a city and the nurturing, even spiritual beauty of nature is one that has always resonated with me deeply. "The Forest At Fountainbleu" speaks directly to this.
The Thursday talk goes from 6 to 8PM, but I don't expect to be talking for even half that time. Happy hour refreshments will be served by the good people at PAM, and hopefully I'll have the chance to listen as much as speak when it comes to "Fountainbleu", its inspirations and effects.