The 19th century opened with new leadership and vision in France. Napoleon Bonaparte dramatically changed the political and social landscape, using art to promote his military and civic achievements (see The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries). Artists like Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres embraced the neoclassical style promoted by the official French art academy, which groomed artists for the prestigious annual Salon exhibition. Rigorous academic practices were a source of contention throughout the century, striking many as restrictive and stifling. As the years went on, more and more artists defied convention in an effort to be original and inventive.
Academic standards rewarded elevated historical, mythological, and biblical themes as subject matter. Now, however, many painters became motivated to depict the world around them. An artist’s own life was far more accessible than a historical battle or story from the Bible. Barbizon artists, such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Jean-François Millet, began actively exploring landscapes they knew in the 1830s, like the forest of Fontainebleau. Their quest to capture the underlying beauty of a rustic woodland clearing or the humbling splendor of a natural vista prefigured the realist movement, which was driven by artists' observation of actual things, real places, and current events rather than imaginary or abstract scenes. Other painters, roused by the bold work of realist Gustave Courbet, enlivened their canvases with expressive and vigorous brushwork, imparting a tactile and physical quality to their pictures.