Julien Dupré essay (download PDF version here)
I. Setting the Stage
Writing to his brother Theo from The Hague on a Sunday afternoon in December, Vincent van Gogh expressed his enthusiasm for a painter whose work had captured his attention. “Do you know whose work has made a deep impression on me? I saw reproductions of Juilen Dupré. One was of two reapers, the other, a splendid large woodcut from Monde illustré, of a peasant woman taking a cow into the meadow. It seemed to me outstanding, very energetic and very true to life.” Although the exact identity of these two paintings is uncertain, van Gogh’s admiration of Dupré’s work illuminates a theme that permeates European art during the second half of the nineteenth century—rural life and the work of agricultural laborers.
This theme has its roots in the genre paintings of sixteenth century Dutch and Flemish artists such as Pieter Bruegel (1525-1569), but it is not until the middle of the nineteenth century that it emerges as part of the Realist challenge to the French academic tradition that customarily categorized such imagery as being of less importance than history painting, religious painting and portraiture. The painters who lived near the village of Barbizon were among the first to declare rural imagery worthy of serious consideration at the Salon; and although they did not have much success persuading the Salon juries to share their perspective, they did attract the attention of colleagues in other parts of Europe.
Fueling the Barbizon painters’ advocacy for rural subject matter was a growing concern about the destruction of the natural environment in the wake of industrialization. Not only was the countryside being carved up by railway lines and steam-powered factories, but the need for vast quantities of natural resources resulted in deforestation, in the creation of unhealthy and unsafe mining practices, and above all, in the denigration of the people who worked under these conditions. Further, as people increasingly sought factory jobs in the city, the countryside saw a significant population decline. These social and economic developments disrupted the agricultural rhythms that had been the foundation of life for centuries.
The aesthetic response to these new social and economic conditions was both stylistic and political.The Revolution of 1830 in France prompted an interest in depicting the daily life of ordinary people, often in the context of the social issues of the time. The influx of people seeking work in the new industrial economy of Paris resulted in new pressures on both social service providers and the city’s infrastructure. The effect was all too predictable—poverty, unemployment and illness.
The arts community reacted in many ways. Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) worked for La Caricature and later Le Charivari, both journals established by Charles Philipon in the1830s, where he created satirical images lampooning the corrupt and incompetent government as well as self-important public figures. The painter Philippe-Auguste Jeanron (1809-1877) expressed his dismay through canvases depicting the plight of destitute families. In the painting Scène de Paris (1833), the poverty-stricken family of a war veteran sits huddled against the quayside wall while well-dressed Parisians stroll past without a glance. (fig. 1)
fig. 1: Philippe-Auguste Jeanron, Scène de Paris, 1833. Oil on canvas. Musée de Chartres, Chartres, France. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/in- dex.php?curid=14683723
 Letter 292, Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo van Gogh, The Hague, Sunday, 10 December 1882. Van Gogh Musuem, Amsterdam, inv. no. b264V/1962. http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let292/letter.html
 Julien Dupré’s submissions for the Salons of 1881 and 1882 attracted press coverage and may have been reproduced either as prints or photomechanical images which van Gogh could have seen in The Hague. Two paintings were shown at the Salon of 1881, La Récolte des Foins (#813) and Dans la Prairie (#814). In 1882, his entry was Au Pâturage (#939).
 Of particular note were the artists who gathered near the village of Tervueren, Belgium beginning in the 1850s. Like the Barbizon painters, their intent was to capture an image of the natural environment without altering it to conform to an academic formula. This group was closely allied with the Brussels-based Realist group associated with the Atelier Libre Saint-Luc that began in 1846. See Janet Whitmore, “Building a Cultural Identity: Belgian Realists and the School of Tervueren” in Toward a New 19th-Century Art, Selections from the Radichel Collection (Minnetonka, MN: Books & Projects, 2017) 66-79.