The juste milieu artists have been unjustly ignored in the oversimplified and polarizing narrative offered by most art history texts.
These days there aren't many books on them; they don't yet have a Wikipedia entry; they're not even mentioned in many authoritative books about French painting—at least not books in English. But if you read accounts from the period, they were talked about constantly. (Click on any image for enlargement, and to see the artist's name and the title of a work.)
"Juste milieu" translates as “the right mean,” or the “happy medium.” These artists aimed for a middle way between the Impressionist and Academic camps.
Many of today’s new realist painters are trying for a similar kind of synthesis, introducing the best of both approaches into their work.
Starting in the Third Republic in the 1870s, independent painters were beginning to make inroads into the authority of the French Academy.
By the late 1880s, the juste milieu group separated from the Academy, forming under the name “Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts.” Among these defectors were Carolus-Duran, Duez, Besnard, Raffaelli, Roll, and Braquemond.
They combined progressive ideas, like a lighter palette and looser brushwork, with high standards of draftsmanship. Those drawing skills were often lacking in the radical—and now famous—proponents of the new style, Impressionism.
The work of the juste milieu had a looser handling than would have been acceptable during the July Monarchy. They preferred to avoid the “licked” finish of Gerome, Cabanel, and Bouguereau.
At the same time, certain members like Dagnan-Bouveret (above) portrayed contemporary rural folk traditions with a dignity that Academic painters had previously given to classical subjects.
The juste milieu commitment to the middle way won them the admiration of many of the artists from around the globe who came to France for training and inspiration. Joaquin Sorolla journeyed to Paris not to see Monet, but to see Bastien-Lepage. (above).
Most of the worldwide impressionist movements, particularly in England, Australia, Russia, and America, were more influenced by the juste milieu artists than by those that we think of as Impressionists, like Sisley, Pissarro, and Renoir.
Degas, who felt the impact of the group, said of Besnard, (ceiling decoration, above) “[He] has stolen our wings.”
Tomorrow: Frontal Lighting