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25 January 2017

Homeward Bound – Luminism and Transcendentalism in László Paál’s Fontainebleau Forestscapes

László Paál (1846–1879) is renowned internationally as an extraordinary landscape painter, connected with the Barbizon School whose work had influence not only on his friend and compatriot Mihály Munkácsy, an extremly popular master in mid to late 19th century Paris, but also on Eugen Jettel, Emil Jakob Schindler, Max Liebermann and the expressionist Carl Frederic Hill. Munkácsy and Paál were exemplars of steadfast friendship between intellectual and political luminaries with strongly differing character traits in the 19th century – one only has to recall the close and loyal bond between Byron and Shelley, Széchenyi and Wesselényi, Arany and Petőfi.

While international artistic success and the emphasis on his Hungarian nationality ran in parallel lines in the case of Munkácsy, Paál’s close tie to his much-missed homeland became a more indirect though decisive source of inspiration for his luminist aesthetics. A formative aspect of his poetics, his cultural identity was deeply rooted in the absence and the memories of a much-missed home. Maturing into an influential artist and leaving his motherland behind were mutually inclusive imperatives for a promising talent born in a small village of Transylvania in the mid-nineteenth century, and so, he settled down in a flourishing cultural hub far from Hungary to develop his personal style. Early in his career, he became greatly inspired by the work of Gustave Courbet and other representatives of the Barbizon School of landscape painting, a movement he himself became a part of later in his life, cut short by an untimely death in 1879.

It is of general consent that his career reached its peak in the last prolific years between 1875 and 1877. The compelling mastery he achieved during this time has its manifestations in three mesmerising forestscapes out of many others, masterpieces that this study endeavours to interpret, delineating how the luminist tendencies inherent in these paintings put them in dialogue with not just the realism and impressionism of the Barbizon School but also with the romanticism and transcendentalism represented by Paál’s overseas contemporaries. These paintings are linked by the same incessant movement toward a home always elsewhere, toward an unknowable, invisible place, which transforms Paál’s forestscapes into objects of contemplation on the transcendent. The aesthetics that unfold in the pictorial representations of the Fontainebleau closure near Barbizon are entitled In the Forest (1875), The Forest at Fontainebleau (1876), The Depth of the Forest (1877), and will be discussed on the basis of their luminist sensibility also prevalent in the Hudson River School of landscape painting between 1830 and 1880.

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