One doesn’t generally head into Manhattan for a sylvan retreat. But such pleasant sanctuary is provided by “Into the Woods: French Drawings and Photographs from the Karen B. Cohen Gift” at the Morgan Library & Museum. The exhibition, featuring images of the Fontainebleau Forest by such Barbizon School masters as Camille Corot and Théodore Rousseau, debuts a recent gift to the museum alongside a handful of works already in the Morgan’s collection.
In any period of drastic technological change, there are bound to be plenty who distrust the resulting upheaval. In mid-nineteenth-century France, as industrialization and Baron Haussmann tore through Paris, the dissatisfied included artists seeking reprieve from the dirty, crowded metropolis. Ironically, technological innovation itself—growing railway systems, portable easels, and paint tubes—is what eased the way for these same artists to reach and depict the idyllic Fontainebleau. This conflict between nature and technological progress is a central concern of “Into the Woods.”
The exhibition is teeming with masterly landscape sketches in charcoal, chalk, graphite, ink, watercolor, and oil. The subjects harmonize well with their media: curling brown ink builds up the leaves and dark tree trunks of Paul Huet’s Lake in Compiegne Forest (1830s) and Théodore Caruelle d’Aligny’s View in the Forest of Fontainebleau (1828–29), while charcoal smudged into brown paper fills out a night sky and the silhouettes of trees in Corot’s Moonlit Landscape (1862). Many of these works suggest a refuge mostly untouched by man; perhaps the forest’s looming and outlandish rock formations kept civilization reasonably at bay.
Even so, many of the best artworks portray people or their livestock. These subjects are sometimes mere features of the landscape, as in Auguste Enfantin’s An Artist Painting among Boulders in the Forest of Fontainebleau (ca. 1825), though here the tiny artist is painted more skillfully than the landscape in question. Corot’s River Landscape (1865–72), meanwhile, features a wading cow. More satisfying are the depictions of the native peasants and their labors. A breathtaking sketch by Jules Breton, Fisherwoman Holding Nets (ca. 1865–76), portrays a woman standing, hand on her hip, toting a bundle of fishing nets, and draped in a peasant’s dress. Breton, who renders her profile and flyaway hairs with extreme sensitivity, makes this woman humble and monumental at the same time.
“Into the Woods” also contains photographs. Most of these are albumen prints, a method of photography in which egg whites bind light-sensitive chemicals to paper. A few photographs stand out for their artful composition, such as Louis-Rémy Robert’s chiaroscuro-infused Study of a Cow, with Figure Seated Behind (ca. 1855) or Eugène Cuvelier’s Study of a Tree in Misty Sunlight (ca. 1860). Per the exhibition, Cuvelier was “unpressured by commissions” and could experiment as he wished, as suggested by Study of a Tree’s inconsequential subject, a gnarled tree trunk, peaceful and patiently observed. The branches in the background fade slowly into the fog, recalling the atmospheric perspective common in paintings from the Northern European Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age.
The Dutch Golden Age’s influence is surprisingly prominent in this exhibition: the show draws a lineage between seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish artists and the Barbizon school; placed beside many Barbizon works are complementary Northern works. This selection includes Adriaen van de Velde’s Side View of a Cow Grazing (ca. 1657), a red-chalk sketch of a cow whose hide exudes a well-groomed sheen. There is also a sparse etching by Rembrandt van Rijn, Cottage with a White Paling (1648), that foreshadows the French artists’ interest in reflections on water: the cottage’s paneling is mirrored deftly on the lagoon before it.
One noteworthy feature of the exhibition, and of the titular Karen B. Cohen gift, is a series of nine watercolor-and-gouache paintings by the nineteenth-century author George Sand. Sand experimented with painting late in her life. Her method entailed pressing together and pulling apart papers wet with pigment to achieve an organic, tree-like texture. She then painted landscapes over these chance shapes and pasted organic plant matter onto the scenes. Sand called these her “dendritic drawings.” But her literalist use of nature and reliance on the random makes these the dullest works of the exhibition. Several sandy landscapes that include red plant clippings are intriguing from afar, but upon closer inspection lack the finesse of the Barbizon (and Dutch) artists. Like many of the photographs on display, Sand’s watercolors are interesting more for their historical status than their artistic merit.
What George Sand missed when she introduced chance into these little paintings is the fact that skilled artifice—the exceptional ability to achieve convincing imitations—is what makes the surrounding sketches compelling. These successful drawings and paintings are good precisely because they weren’t left to chance: even the faintest shadows of charcoal were created with deliberation. Sand’s dendriform splotches, devoid of purposeful light and shadow, wilt in comparison.
Many of the photographs, appearing overly documentary, fall into the converse trap. Overreliance on a camera surrenders the picture-making process to the machine, denying the role of the human hand in artistic creation. Thus François Bonvin’s and Jean-François Millet’s drawings of peasant labor enthrall more than their photographic counterparts by Karl Bodmer and Adolphe Giraudon; though the drawings may be less strictly realistic, they let the viewer delight in the artists’ skill. The photographs that compel as much as the drawings are those possessing carefully orchestrated compositions lifted out of mere observation.
“Into the Woods,” at its core, is concerned with the tension between nature and mankind. But despite the artists’ staunch defense of nature, which included a campaign to preserve Fontainebleau in the face of tourism and industry, the exhibition remains hopefully disposed toward human creation. Admiration and awe of nature is indispensable, and it is a bridge too far to surrender entirely to technological impulses. Artists have always depended on advancing technology—what matters most is how they use it.