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The Art of JAMA
October 1, 2014

Forest of Fontainebleau, AutumnNarcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña

JAMA. 2014;312(13):1280-1281. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.279755

The incense-like aroma of fall foliage, bracing air, and brilliant hues of leaves invigorate the psyche, and one’s energy level seems to rise with the approach of autumn. The celebration of the glories of the natural world was intrinsic to works by Barbizon school painter Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña (1807-1876). He coaxed the charm of a mysterious, primeval forest into his pictures, creating a calm beauty, a marked contrast with his own calamitous life.

Diaz was born in Bordeaux, France, to refugees from Spain. His father traveled on to London but died there. His mother found work and made a home in Sèvres but died when Diaz was around 10 years of age. Further tragedy occurred during a traipse through the woods of the region, where he received a bite from some creature. The wound eventually led to the loss of his leg, but the use of a prosthesis did not seem to impede his progress in life. He began an artistic career as a painter of porcelain, but proceeded to develop a wider oeuvre that came to include figures and eventually the sumptuous landscapes that radiated a joy in nature. Of incalculable importance to his future endeavors was his encountering painter Théodore Rousseau around 1830-1831. Diaz subsequently traveled to the Fontainebleau forest while Rousseau was working in the region, and in viewing Rousseau’s paintings, Diaz caught a vision for his own life’s work, augmented by Rousseau sharing his knowledge and technique with the admiring acolyte. (Thomson DC. The Barbizon School of Painters: Corot, Rousseau, Diaz, Millet, Daubigny, Etc. New York, NY: Scribner & Welford; 1890:169-198; https://archive.org/details/barbizonschoolof00thomuoft)

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