Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña was a French landscape and figure painter born to Spanish political refugees in Bordeaux. Trained as a porcelain painter and with little academic training, he went on to become a leader in the avant-garde Barbizon school, a precursor to Impressionism and modern painting. Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña paintings span the genres of his era, defying clear categorization, exhibiting the (then-revolutionary) plein-aire handling characteristic of the Barbizon school, the jewel-tones and exotic figures of Orientalism, and mythical scenes of nymphs and bathers that recall the classical tradition. He became amentor to many of the younger Barbizon painters and future Impressionists, including as Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Diaz de la Peña brought the force of his own vivacious personality and an active sense of fantasy to his interpretation of the Fontainebleau forest and his figural paintings. Deeply shadowed forests are alive with loose brushwork revealing warm highlights and occasional sparkling points of light, the usually dense mass of trunks pierced and lightened by delicate clearings of light or the flicker of light over a figure. His figures are often rendered impressionistically, without harsh linearity. There a stronger sense of the play of light over flesh than of classically specific features, and sumptious costumes are rendered with active, visible brushstrokes and gorgeous jeweled tones.
Born in 1807, Diaz de la Peña was raised primarily by his mother. He was left orphaned and destitute by the age of 10, and was raised in the care of a local Protestant priest at Bellevue. An incident of blood poisoning caused by an insect bite caused him to lose one of his legs, and he eventually became well-known for his wooden leg. This precluded any extensive travel, and the oriental, Biblical and mythical landscapes and figures found in Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña paintings sprung largely from his imagination and the inspiration of the Fontainebleau forest. Whether due to or in spite of his handicap, Diaz de la Peña was also known for his compassionate, happy, and exuberant nature throughout his life, often going out of his way to help younger artists and peers.
He began to apprentice at the studio of Arsène Gillet at Sevres as a teenager, painting brightly colored designs on china and porcelain. There he met Gillet’s nephew, Jules Dupre, another Barbizon artist, as well as other painters. The hard factory work soon took its toll on Diaz de la Peña and he began to paint his own compositions, mostly of rich, oriental subjects. In the end, he was dismissed from the factory for his creativity, which did not lend itself to factory work.
He began painting by studying and copying the masters at the Louvre, as he would have in an atelier of the time. Although he studied for some time in the studio of Alexander Cabanel, his formal training was not extensive. He greatly admired the work of Coreggio and Prud’hon, and was even influenced to an extent by the fanciful works by painters such as Watteau. He was also influenced by the artists of his day, particularly Eugène Delacroix with his Orientalist nymphs, Turks and Bohemians. At the Salon of 1831, Diaz de la Peña entered his first painting. He would go on to exhibit fairly regularly at the Salons until 1859, winning three Salon gold medals for painting. He was named a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1851.
Sometime around 1830, he met Théodore Rousseau in Paris. They would later become close friends at Barbizon around 1836. Rousseau introduced Diaz de la Peña to the work of the Dutch masters, and encouraged him in his landscapes. Diaz de la Peña in fact became perhaps his most devoted follower at Barbizon. He was also a follower of Millet, even helping to sell some of his paintings on occasion. When Millet first proposed to move full-time to the country, in order to be closer to the natural world and the peasants seen in Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña paintings, the artist was supposedly taken aback, and rather against the idea.
However, Millet and Jacque, having proceeded despite his protests to “discover” Barbizon, Diaz de la Peña became a leader of the group and a welcoming guide to new artists. In the early nineteenth century, French painting was highly proscribed by the systematic hierarchy imposed by the French Academy. Historical, mythological and Biblical subjects were preeminent, and landscape expected to be idealized, highly composed and grandiose. All painting was expected to strive for a balanced, classicized ideal independent of the nature one lived in and experienced. Artists in France rarely painted en plain air, a mode of work thought reasonable only for preliminary sketch. As the rigid Academy promoted historical, academic painting through such programs as the Prix de Rome, they unintentionally also allowed for the increasing influence of the Italian plein-aire landscapes by artists such as Poussin. The plein-aire work of the Dutch tradition and the painting of the Englishman John Constable also gained popularity among younger painters. French artists such as Corot, and the Barbizon school began painting studies outdoors, and eventually entire paintings.
Rousseau, Diaz de la Peña, Corot, Dupre and Daubigny, among many others, became a core group at Barbizon dedicated to the faithful, largely unidealized representation of the natural world. Later artists such as Breton and Michel would bring their own approach to this pursuit of nature. There was not so much a defining style as a defining style of working, a philosophy that echoed the revolutionary rejection of the past in Parisian and French society of the age. By 1848, when many artists sought both the pastoral peace and the avant-garde artistic ethos in the Fontainebleau forest amidst the revolutions, the informal group of painters became a recognized movement that would eventually come to be known as the Barbizon School, and indeed dominate French landscape painting through the late 1860’s.
Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña paintings reached the height of their fame in 1855 at the Exposition Universal. Prior to that he was elected a member of the Salon jury winning many medals. Diaz’s financial success enabled him to lend a helping hand to his friends when in need including Troyon, Rousseau, and Millet. The last Salon in to exhibit Diaz paintings would be 1859.
Painters of a new generation, Claude Monet (1840-19z6), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), encountered in the forest of Fontainebleau in 1864, received his warm encouragement. At Etretat, where he summered in 1869, he painted seascapes in the company of Gustave Courbet. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, he sought refuge in Brussels. He died in 1876, aged sixty-eight, at the Mediterranean resort of Mentone.
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