Narcisse-Virgile Diaz (1807-1876)

Narcisse-Virgile Diaz (1807-1876)

The modest desire of Barbizon painters to capture unidealized views of nature launched a revolution in French art.  By 1850, Camille Corot (1796-1875), Charles François Daubigny (1817-1878), Narcisse Diaz (1807-1876) and Jean Françios Millet (1814-1875) were all painting in the village of Barbizon at the Forest of Fountainbleau. Providence dealer Seth Morton Vose (1831-1910) began acquiring works by these major Barbizon painters in the 1850s, convinced that they were among the greatest painters of the day. His collection of Barbizon art numbered in the hundreds, but it took more than twenty years before he would sell even one painting. Despite ridicule, he remained devoted to their cause and eventually turned public opinion; in 1887 Vose sold five Corot’s for $10,000 a piece.

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Seth Morton Vose imported his first Diaz painting in 1857. Formally named Narcisse Virgil Diaz de la Pena, Diaz was born in Bordeaux to Spanish political refugees who orphaned him at a young age.  His cheerless youth was further exacerbated when he was bitten in the leg by a snake; the resulting infection necessitated that the leg be amputated, and Diaz wore a wooden limb for the rest of his life. Perhaps due to these hardships, he was described by his companions as a fiery character, brusque in his speech and robust in his appearance.  As a professional artist, he displayed these traits in his paintings, holding firmly to his belief in the value of strong color over fine draftsmanship.

Diaz’s earliest employment was as an apprentice to a Parisian porcelain painter who introduced him to artists Jules Dupre, Nicholas-Louis Cabat and Auguste Raffet. During the 1820s, he received formal training in the arts under François Souchon at the Lille Art School, and then successfully exhibited his paintings at the impressive Parisian Salon for the first time in 1831. His earliest works were in fact figurative pieces as opposed to landscapes, with a particular specialty in nymphs, Turkish and Arabian women. His viewers were so impressed by the glowing qualities of these works and their realistic portrayal of warm sun on vibrantly colored clothing that many assumed he spent his summers in the East, not knowing that Diaz had never seen these ladies in person.

At nearly the age of forty, Diaz made the first of many trips to the Forest of Fontainbleau and began the series of works for which he is now so well known. He befriended Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867), leader of the Barbizon school, stealing glimpses of his mentor’s palette in an attempt to learn from his technique. Over time, Rousseau gave in to Diaz’ curiosities and instructed him on the application of such bold colors as emerald green and Naples yellow, colors which would further enhance Diaz’s vibrant works. His obituary in The Art Journal read: “He delighted to paint forest-scenes, and was particularly happy in lighting up the dark places with rays of sunlight, and touching with spots of gold the hoary tree-trunks.” [1] Such works earned him many honors over the course of his career, including the admirable Legion of Honor in 1851.  During the mid 1860s, Diaz executed a number of pieces portraying his young daughters Marie and Emile. In the Garden is one of at least six painting depicting Marie holding her favori, a small pet lamb; other variations show the young girl with a tiny white dog or basket of flowers.  In the Garden is one of the most finely executed portrayals of Marie, and it is nearly equal in quality to one that Diaz scholar Pierre Miquel lists as belonging to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

References: Who Was Who In American Art (1999); Vose Galleries of Boston catalog The Barbizon; The Art Journal, Diaz Obituary, 1877, p.31; “The Barbizon School. Narcisse Virgilio Diaz-II” by David Croal Thomson, Magazine of Art, June 1889.

[1] The Art Journal, Diaz Obituary, 1877, p.31.

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