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 Narcisse-Virgil Diaz de la Pena  (1807 - 1876)

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Lived/Active: France      Known for: exotic female figure and forest landscape painting

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Biography from Westbrook Galleries:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Narcisse Diaz, a French landscape and figure painter and founding member of the avant-garde Barbizon school, was born in Bordeaux of Spanish parents. His parents were refugees from Joseph Bonaparte's Spain.  By the age of ten, he was a penniless orphan in the care of a priest at Bellevue near Paris.(1).  The young Narcisse, who had lost one of his legs to blood poisoning, was apprenticed as a pottery decorator in Paris at the age of 15, (2) which may account for his later predilection for bright colors and his rather free draftsmanship.(3) His handicap, and its impact on his mobility, were to be determinant in the course of his future career. As was a common practice, Narcisse learned to paint at the Louvre, where he was drawn to the works of the colorists. His early inspiration came most notably from Correggio, whose Antiope he repeated and interpreted in his own Nymphe Endormie (in The Louvre), and in the two sketches in the Wallace Collection, Venus désarmant l'Amour and L'Education de l'Amour.

He was also influenced by Prud'hon. Prud'hon's Venus and Adonis (in the Wallace Collection) inspired a work by Narcisse of the same title (now in The Louvre).  In his paintings, intended for a certain caste of the Second Empire, Narcisse also borrowed from the 18th-century painters of the fêtes-galantes.  The grace and fantasy of a Lancret or a Pater are often present. Narcisse's Le Clown (in The Phoenix Art Museum) is composed of bits and pieces from Watteau's Gilles (in The Louvre) and from several other works by Watteau.

His La Fée aux Perles (in The Louvre) borrows heavily from the Vénus de Milo. Among his contemporaries, Narcisse had two spiritual fathers: Eugène Delacroix with his orientalist nymphs, Turks and Bohemians, (4) and Théodore Rousseau, with whom he became friends at Barbizon in 1836 and who gave him a taste for the Dutch masters. Narcisse first exhibited at the Salon between 1831 and 1837. From 1837 to 1844, he was a core member of the Barbizon school, named for a small village at the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. It was during this period that his future greatness became manifest. During the ensuing years, he was awarded three Salon gold medals for painting, and, in 1851, was named a Knight of the Legion of Honor. At the 1846 Salon, Narcisse's entries garnered the cynicism of Charles Baudelaire, who opined he saw nothing in Diaz's work but "sickeningly sweet confections and candies".(5) But then again, Baudelaire had bones to pick with other Barbizon painters.(6) Théophile Gautier on the other hand was sympathetic, noting on the occasion of the 1847 Salon: "There is in painting, as in music, a purely sensual side, in which the eye delights in the color - as the ear delights in the note - for its own value and sonority ... A major green or a minor yellow are delicacies which charm the eye. One can but admire the love of hues for their own sake which Diaz manifests, and on which his reputation rests."(7) With the Salon of 1848, the Barbizon School of painters became a definite, recognized entity, dominating French landscsape painting through the late 1860's. (8)

Prior to the nineteenth century, artists drew but rarely painted out of doors. By the middle of the century, the painting of small outdoor studies was common to Corot and the Barbizon school, and to the "Pre-Impressionist" painters, Eugène Boudin and J.-B. Jongkind who were active in Normandy. Théodore Rousseau had been the first to settle in Barbizon in 1836 where he had escaped, discouraged by his lack of success at the Salons. (9) Diaz, Millet, Jacque, and scores of others had later joined him in the tiny village surrounded on three sides by a plain stretching as far as the eye could see. (10) At Barbizon, Rousseau, Diaz and their friends had rediscovered nature together with Corot and Daubigny. Although the individual methods and concepts of the Barbizon painters differed considerably, they had in common a complete devotion to nature and a desire to be faithful to their observations. Diaz excelled in somber woodland interiors in which spots of light or strips of sky shining through the branches would create dramatic contrasts. A fanatic adversary of line as well as of the slick academic technique, he loved color and the rough texture of heavily-applied paint. (11) François-Louis Français recounts the days spent at Barbizon and neighboring Chailly: "We were quite a group there and we were full of high spirits! Diaz, Rousseau, Barye, Decamps, Corot. Ladis, too, of course! Ah! what gaiety, my friends, what laughs! Each morning Corot, who had a good voice, would awaken us, greeting the dawn with an opera aria or a song." (12)

According to all reports, Narcisse was exceptionally kind to his fellow artists and to the young Impressionists. There seems to have been nothing in Diaz' mind which was not kindly and generous. Always cheerful in spite of his lameness, he was "obliging, good-natured, and gentle as a lamb with those whom he liked. He was not jealous of his contemporaries and sometimes bought their pictures, which he showed and praised to everyone." (13) Diaz immediately took a great liking to Renoir, whose admiration for his elder mentor grew as he came to know him better. Aware of Renoir's precarious financial situation (at Gleyre's studio, he had often picked up the tubes thrown away by others and squeezed them to the very last drop), Diaz put his own paint-dealer's charge account at the disposal of his young friend and thus discreetly provided him with pigments and canvas. (14) As to the advice he gave Renoir, it seems that Diaz told him "no self-respecting painter ever should touch a brush if he has no model under his eyes," (15) although this was hardly the way in which he proceeded himself. On another occasion, a young Claude Monet had sold his Garden of the Princess to a Monsieur Latouche, who had a small paint shop where his artist customers would gather in the evening. Latouche placed the painting in his shop window for viewing by passers-by. Daumier impatiently summoned Latouche to take this "horreur" out of the window, while Diaz manifested great enthusiasm and predicted that Monet would go far.(16)

Narcisse's handicap made it impossible for him to realize his plans for distant travel. His movements were limited to the environs of Barbizon, whose deep forest became his preferred theme, often serving as a screen onto which he projected his dreams of faraway places. Narcisse's friend, Félix Ziem, could have been describing our painting when he recounts: "I saw Diaz paint in the forest magical effects of the Orient, mirages that are surprising, true, sun-drenched. The trunks and leaves of beech trees sufficed for the most brilliant poems suffused with the rays of the most enchanting fairyland." (17) Narcisse may have indeed imagined the Orient as a forest, as suggested by his Bohémiens se Rendant à Une Fête (The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) shown at the Salon of 1844. An Oriental Woman and Her Daughter (18) bears striking similarities of setting, treatment and subject matter to our painting. Although art historians have attempted to confine Narcisse to a single school - that which grew up at Barbizon - Narcisse was essentially a free spirit and followed his own instincts. He had no pretentions to forming a school. His influence however shows in the landscapes of the Munich painter, Carl Spitzweg, who copied Narcisse's Bohémiens se Rendant à Une Fête. Striking analogies can also be found in the work of the Marseillais painter, Monticelli, who owed Diaz both his impasto technique and his purity of color.

In the end, Diaz left the Forest of Fontainebleau, with its fantasies, to take up grandiose and hostile landscapes, deserted and colorless, which rank among his best paintings: Dans les Pyrénées (The Mesdag Museum), L'Orage (The National Gallery, London), and La Mer Agitée (The Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum). Impressionism slipped into mid-century painting and crept forward at a time when Barbizon art was considered the natural way of seeing. (19) Well into the 20th century, until Impressionism took over, the art of Diaz, Corot, Daubigny, Théodore Rousseau and Millet constituted the natural vision of the world, the most sought-after art in Western culture. (20) * * *

Collections of Diaz de la Peña's paintings are in The Louvre, The Reims Museum, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (which has A Clearing in the Forest of Fontainebleau).  His Courtesans and Descent of the Bohemians are at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and his Valley Marsh at the Cincinnati Art Museum. There is a significant collection in Paris (32 at the Louvre), in London (four at the National Gallery, four at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and three in the Wallace Collection), and at The Hague (eight at the Mesdag Museum). (1) Philip Hendy, European and American Paintings in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, © 1974 by The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, p. 79. (2) Some accounts say he was apprenticed at the Sèvres porcelain factory. (3) Many artists of the period, including Renoir, had first dipped brush into paint in porcelain factories. (4)

For a discussion of the friendship between Narcisse and Delacroix, see Delacroix: The Late Work, © 1998 Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, and Philadelphia Museum of Art, published on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name, pp. 56, 66, 69, 124, 146, 253-54. (5) "bonbons et sucreries écoeurantes." (6) John Rewald, The History of Impressionism, 4th Rev. Ed., © 1973, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, John Rewald, p. 96. (7) "Il est en peinture ainsi qu'en musique un côté purement sensuel, par lequel l'oeil jouit du ton, comme l'oreille jouit de la note, pour sa valeur et sa sonorité propres ... Un vert dièze ou un jaune bémol sont des délicatesses qui vous charment. Il ne faut pas dédaigner ce sentiment de l'amour des nuances pour elles-mêmes que Diaz satisfait et auquel il doit la réputation dont il jouit." (8) Richard R. Brettell, French Salon Artists 1800-1900, © 1987 by The Art Institute of Chicago, p. 35. (9) Hendy, loc. cit. (10) Rewald, op. cit., p. 93. (11) Ibid., p. 95. (12) Corot, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, an Exhibition Catalogue, © 1996, p. 91. (13) T. Silvestre, Histoire des artistes vivants, Paris, 1856, p. 226; J. Claretie, Peintres et sculpteurs contemporains, Paris, 1873, pp. 33-34;J. La Farge, The Higher Life in Art, New York, 1908, p. 122. (14) See A. André, Renoir, Paris, 1928, p. 34. (15) See J. Rewald, Renoir and His Brother, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, J. Rewald, March 1945. (16) Rewald, op. cit., p. 152. (17) Christine Peltre, Orientalism in Art, ©; Abbeville Press 1998, illustrated p. 215. (18) Peltre, op. cit., p. 218. (19) For a discussion of the Barbizons' influence on the impressionists, see A Day in the Country: Impressionism and the French Landscape, © 1984 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Exhibition Catalogue. (20) Robert L. Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society, © 1988, Yale University, p. 304

Provenance: Private Collection, Amsterdam; with Kunsthandel Harold Reitz, Amsterdam Museums and Collections: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Louvre, Paris; The National Gallery, London; The Victoria and Albert, London; The Art Institute of Chicago; The Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum; The Reims Musem; The Mesdag Museum; The Wallace Collection; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; The Phoenix Art Museum; and countless other public and private collections.

Biography from Anderson Galleries, Inc.:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena was born to Spanish emigrant parents on August 20, 1808 in Bordeaux.  He survived the loss of a leg in a childhood accident and further suffered the death of his parents at age fifteen.  Diaz’s artistic training was as a porcelain painter and he studied briefly with the painter Souchon  His early paintings catered to the popular taste for 18th century sty1e Rococo and resulted in financial success for the young artist.  Fetes galantes were favorite subjects and the women depicted in Diaz’s canvases were often cloaked in exotic Turkish garb, reflecting the artist’s admiration for Delacroix and his orientalist followers.  Indeed Diaz’s first Salon entry in 1831 was titled Scene Amour

Diaz first visited Barbizon in 1835 and it was in 1837 that he met Rousseau. The inf1uence of Rousseau could be seen in Diaz’s Salon entry of that year depicting a view of Fontainebleau Forest.  Through the 1840s, his figure paintings continued to be the major part of his work, and are thought to have influenced the female subjects of Corot, Renoir and certainly Monticelli.  Though figure painting would always remain important for Diaz, it is his landscapes of the 1850s—- particularly of the Fontainebleau Forest-- for which the artist is most remembered.  Recognized as a superb colorist in his day, his forest interiors are richly painted with warm browns, oranges, golds and silvery tree trunks and branches. Though the artist often applied paint loosely with a broad palette knife, his observation of nature was nevertheless keen. 

A regular exhibitor at the Salon, in 1848 Diaz won a first-class medal, and received the Legion d’honneur.  A good-natured and generous man, Diaz’s financia1 success enabled him to lend a helping hand to his friends when in need, including Troyon, Rousseau and Millet.  The artist died at Menton on November 18, 1876.

Biography from Daphne Alazraki Fine Art:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña was born in 1807 in Bordeaux, France. His parents, Spanish political refugees of the Peninsular Wars died early and he at the age of ten, he entered the household of a pastor in Bellevue, near Paris. At thirteen, he suffered from an infection caused by an insect sting or snakebite necessitating the amputation of his left leg. Nevertheless, his artistic career was active and prolific.

In 1823/5 Diaz was apprenticed as a colorist in Arsene Gillet’s Paris porcelain factory where he met Gillet’s nephew, the painter Jules Dupré who became a lifelong friend. He also befriended the artists Auguste Raffet, Louis Cabat, and Constant Troyon. In the late 1820s, he left his apprenticeship and embarked on a course of independent study. He studied old masters and the contemporary Neo-classicists in the Louvre and came under the tutelage of Francois Souchon. Also at this time, he developed friendships with Honore Daumier, Theodore Rousseau, and Paul Huet.

Diaz exhibited at the Salon from 1831 and also began to spend much time in the Forest of Fontainebleau forming close associations with the other landscape painters of what came to be known as the Barbizon School. His studies of the forest were painted with a characteristic speed and fluency, giving him a reputation for productivity and commercial success. Awarded a first-class medal at the Salon of 1848, Diaz was appointed chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1851.

After 1859, Diaz ceased to exhibit at the Salon. In his later years he lived in Barbizon and concentrated on dramatically charged and realistically rendered landscapes. 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 Menton.

Biography from Schiller & Bodo European Paintings:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena was born to Spanish emigrant parents on August 20, 1807 in Bordeaux.  His artistic training began as a porcelain painter and he studied briefly with the artist Souchon.  His early paintings catered to the popular taste for 18th century style Rococo and resulted in financial success for the young artist.

Though figure painting would always remain important for Diaz, it is his landscapes of the 1850’s and 1860’s, particularly of Fontainebleau Forest for which the artist is most remembered.  Recognized as a superb colorist in his own day, his forest interiors are richly painted with warm browns, oranges, golds and silvery tree trunks and branches.  Though the artist often applied paint loosely with a broad palette knife, his observation of nature was nevertheless keen. 

A regular exhibitor at the Salon, in 1848 Diaz won a first-class medal, and in 1881 he received the Legion d’honneur.  Diaz’s financial success enabled him to lend a helping hand to his friends when in need, including Troyon, Rousseau, and Millet. The artist died at Menton on November 18, 1876.

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