Jean Ferdinand Chaigneau (1830- 1906)

One of the central figures in the second generation of Barbizon painters, Jean-Ferdinand Chaigneau combined rural subject matter inspired by his informal mentors Millet and Charles Jacque with the polished skills acquired in many years of academic training.  Chaigneau's ability at figure drawing and pictorial composition gave his Barbizon and Fontainebleau scenes a distinctive originality and recognizability.  And his long association with the village of Barbizon (where he maintained a home for 50 years), as well as his efforts to make Barbizon art better known internationally  in 1882, with Charles Jacque, Chaigneau founded the "Societe des artistes animaliers"  distinguished Chaigneau as the principal representative of Barbizon art during the last quarter of the nineteenth-century.

Chaigneau was born on March 6, 1830 in the shipping center of Bordeaux, where he studied drawing under the successful academic painter Jean-Paul Alaux.  In 1847, he moved to Paris to continue studies with an uncle who was a marine painter; and in 1848 he submitted a landscape to the unjuried Salon (the Revolution of 1848 had suspended the normal Salon restrictions).  In 1849, encouraged by Jacques Brascassat, a family friend and successful animal painter, Chaigneau entered the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  He studied in the studio of Picot, one of the most traditional teachers at the Ecole, and in the studios of Jules Coignet and Brascassat, both more forward-looking and skilled as landscapists.

Chaigneau seems to have focused on a career in landscape painting from the beginning, and he entered the quadrennial competitions for the Prix de Rome in Historical Landscape almost immediately after his acceptance at the Ecole – finishing a noteworthy 6th in 1849 and receiving Honorable Mention (runner-up or second place) in 1854.  During these years, alongside his studies in the restrained, classical landscape style favored by the Coignet and others at the Ecole, Chaigneau also honed his skills as a realistic landscape artist, traveling throughout France to study a wide variety of terrain –the Rhone valley around Lyon, the Normandy coast, the marshes of the southern Landes region, and the mountains of the Auvergne.  At the Exposition Universelle of 1855 he exhibited a landscape in the tradition of Theodore Rousseau, then the most highly acclaimed member of the Realist school of French landscape, entitled "Marais dans les Landes."

It may well have been this predilection for real nature that prevented Chaigneau from winning the grand prize for Historical Landscape in 1857, when his record of past successes certainly would have marked him as a favorite, in any event, the prize went to a very traditional colleague and Chaigneau withdrew from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to settle more-or-less permanently in Barbizon.  Henceforth, his work was closely associated with scenes of peasant life and distinctive landmarks on the Plain of Chailly, although he made occasional forays into the great Forest of Fontainebleau.  In 1865, Chaigneau's painting "L'hiver, carrefour de l’Epine, foret de Fontainebleau" was purchased by the government and presented to the museum in Rennes, but his principal recognition in France came during the decade of the 1880s, when he won medals or honorable mentions at several Salons, as well as the Exposition Universelle in 1889.

Chaigneau’s shepherding and harvesting subjects have strong echoes of Millet, Rousseau and Jacque (his closest colleagues among the older generation of Barbizon artists), but he always maintained his individuality with very close attention to draughtsmanly values.  His paintings are characterized by careful, often intricate composition (even when the subject is the chaotic undergrowth or 'sous-bois' scenes of the forest), and a distinctive, bright range of colors that reflects the higher-key palette made popular by his Impressionist contemporaries.  At the Salon, he frequently presented very large-scale decorative paintings of harvesting or shepherding scenes (the kind of strongly patriotic landscape subject that had an important vogue during the last decades of the nineteenth-century – two of these pictures now decorate town halls in the Barbizon area), while continuing to produce small, carefully observed paintings and etchings for an increasingly international clientele.

Chaigneau’s skill as a draughtsman had brought him into the Societe des Aquafortistes, the new organization of etchers assembled by the printer/dealer Alfred Cadart in 1862; and he built a successful second career as a printmaker.  Chaigneau’s work was introduced to American audiences through the exhibitions of etchings and paintings assembled by Cadart which traveled to New York and Boston in 1866 and 1867; in the following decades the leading New York dealer in modern paintings and prints, Knoedler, promoted Chaigneau's work in America.  Throughout his career Chaigneau worked closely with dealers such as Cadart, Georges Petit, and Samuel P. Avery who led the international recognition of Barbizon art, and he exhibited paintings in London, Paris, Barcelona, Sao Paulo, and throughout America.  In 1893, he received a silver medal at the Columbian Exposition (World's Fair) in Chicago.

During the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71), Chaigneau and fellow Barbizon painter Georges Gassies formed a small field hospital for French soldiers and were subsequently arrested by the Prussians and imprisoned until the armistice in March, 1871.  A retrospective exhibition of Chaigneau' s work was organized during in the spring of 1906 in Paris and Chaigneau died in Barbizon at 76 on October 22, 1906.