Is there a fate worse for a painter than being remembered primarily as a “precursor” to a later, very major development in the history of Western art?
Take Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867), the subject of a fine, newly opened survey exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Once he had been celebrated for textured landscape paintings of the French countryside, especially the fabled forest of Fontainebleau 40 miles southeast of Paris. Now he is mostly extolled for a leading role in opening the door on Impressionism, which blossomed after his death.
Precursor to Monet! And Cezanne!
More than Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, more than Charles-Francois Daubigny, both of whom also worked in Fontainebleau, Rousseau ranks as perhaps Western art history’s Precursor in Chief. The title doesn’t merely damn with faint praise, it misrepresents his achievement.
Yes, the implication is that the extravagantly talented painter was forward-looking — on to something fresh that escaped most of his colleagues.