French landscape drawings of the 19th century



After ten years of relative neglect, the Barbizon School could now gradually move back into the limelight

The depreciation seen in 2003 has made drawings the least profitable medium on the market. Unlike most other segments of the drawings market, 19th century landscapists have not been subject to speculative buying at any time in the last ten years. For example, the price of drawings by landscapists grew only 12% between 1993 and 2003, whereas those of impressionists doubled in price over the same period. In looking to make a gain on resales, collectors tend to focus on segments that have been neglected for some years, where there is still significant scope for price rises. For this reason, the landscape drawings of the Barbizon School currently look promising, since their prices have never really taken off.

The Barbizon School was a group of artists who sought to represent the countryside in a more naturalistic way. These artists did not develop a particular theory but shared common interests, including a desire to escape from modern civilisation, mechanisation and the rapid growth of large and increasingly inhumane cities. The painters took refuge in Barbizon as revolution was brewing in Paris, and the school truly took off in the 1840s. The artists discovered that by juxtaposing small strokes of pure colour they could increase the luminous intensity of their palette. The landscapists of the Barbizon school took sketches directly from nature and then reproduced them on small-format canvasses back in their studios. As shown by the hugely successful auction of Pierre Miquel’s landscape collection (29 March to 2 April 2004, at Rossini), the price level for landscape paintings is at an all-time high. But as prices in the painting segment continue to rise and supply dries up, the preparatory drawings of the Barbizon School, which have long attracted little interest, are likely to become increasingly sought-after.

A pastel by Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) entitled Animals grazing at the edge of a pine forest, Vosges, fetched the highest price at auction of any drawing in the last ten years, selling for USD 480,000 in New York. The next highest-priced are by Camille Corot, Antoine-Louis Barye and Théodore Rousseau. A charcoal drawing by Corot, for example—Arbres dans les Rochers avec Personnages Italiens—sold for FRF 1.35 million (EUR 205,806) at Piasa in 2000. But some of these records are starting to look rather dated—those of Millet and Rousseau, for example, were set in 1994 and 1991 respectively. The overall price index for Barbizon School drawings was 13% lower in July 2004 than in 1990, indicating that there is considerable room for improvement. The trend has been upward since the start of the year.
While demand for these artists is international, France is still the number one market in this segment, accounting for 60% of transactions. Besides Drouot, many works are also regularly put up for auction at Fontainebleau and Barbizon, particularly drawings and works by less celebrated artists such as Rosa Bonheur, Jules Dupré, Constant Troyon, Felix Ziem and Charles François Daubigny. French auctions are overflowing with landscape sketches by lesser-known artists—in 2003 85% of Barbizon School drawings went under the hammer for less than EUR 5,000, with many selling for under EUR 1,000. In this price band, collectors will find a broad range of drawings by Auguste Allonge, Edouard François Bertin, Charles Emile Jacque and Alexandre Gabriel Decamps.

But it is not just the artist and genre that need to be taken into account—attention must also be paid to how well the work is preserved, especially when it is already over a hundred years old. Sketches need to be in perfect condition to find a buyer. 36% of works on paper are now bought-in, compared with 29% in 1999. Collectors, more demanding than ever, are turning their noses up at marks and folds. Above a certain price level, these defects become insurmountable problems. As regards subject matter, buyers are particularly keen on works depicting forests, particularly those that make reference to locations imbued with mythical associations, such as the Mare aux Fées. Bearing in mind the high prices that have previously been fetched in this segment since the start of the 20th century, collectors need to be doubly suspicious of works attributed to the movement’s leading lights, since fakes are known to exist.

A very fine thematic sale is to be held on 5 December at Osenat (Fontainebleau)