Théodore Rousseau, the leading representative of the Barbizon school, was one of the first artists attracted to the region of the Forest of Fontainebleau. After traveling through the French provinces in the 1820s making sketches out-of-doors, he settled in Fontainebleau about 1837. From 1836 to 1847 he was excluded from the Salon, but such views of the Fontainebleau region as Under the Birches earned him a reputation as an important landscape painter among such distinguished patrons as Delacroix and George Sand. A mingling of observation and artifice, Rousseau's picture presents a portrait of a place, a record of the individual charcteristics of each tree. The sense of time and place, as mundane as it is specific, anticipates the preoccupations of the Impressionists, who become active from the 1860s on. The underlying structure, utilizing the horizontals and verticals established by the picutre's shape, brings this record of a place into the realm of art.
In 1849 Rousseau began to participate regularly in the Salons. Though Salon-goers disliked his clots of paint, his unelevated subjects, and his presentation of what he saw instead of what was known, he eventually gained much recognition through the Academy. Besides a gold medal earned in the Salon of 1849, Rousseau was later awarded the cross of the Legion of Honor, an exceptional distinction. As he gained financial success, he appealed to officials to preserve the Forest of Fontainebleau as a natural sanctuary and to save it from industrialization.
Rousseau's interest in portraying nature was shared by a number of other painters of the Barbizon school, including François Daubigny and Camille Corot. Other Barbizon painters, notably Millet, turned to themes of humanity's relation to nature.