|French painter. After the death of his Spanish parents, a pastor living in Bellevue (nr Paris) took him in. In 1825, he started work as an apprentice colorist in Arsène Gillet’s porcelain factory, where he became friendly with Gillet’s nephew Jules Dupré and made the acquaintance of Auguste Raffet, Louis Cabat and Constant Troyon. At this time, he executed his first oil paintings of flowers, still-lifes and landscapes. Around 1827 Diaz is thought to have taken lessons from the Lille artist François Souchon (1787–1857); perhaps more importantly, he copied works by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon and Correggio in the Louvre, Paris, and used their figures and subjects in such later paintings as Venus and Adonis and the Sleeping Nymph (both Paris, Mus. d’Orsay). He soon became the friend of Honoré Daumier, Théodore Rousseau and Paul Huet. Diaz’s pictures exhibited at the Salon from 1831 to 1844 derive from numerous sources, including mythology, as in Venus Disarming Cupid (exh. Salon 1837; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay), and literature, as in Subject Taken from Lewis’s ‘The Monk’ (exh. Salon 1834; possibly the picture in the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, entitled Claude Frollo and Esmerelda). His other themes include a fantastical Orientalism inspired by his admiration for Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps and Eugène Delacroix, as in Eastern Children (Cincinnati, OH, Taft Mus.) and such genre scenes as In a Turkish Garden (Boston, MA, Mus. F.A.); these are all the more theatrical in that Diaz never travelled in the East. Nevertheless, they display his skill as a colorist and his ability to render light.
From 1835, Diaz regularly stayed in the Forest of Fontainebleau. Although Decamps’s influence persisted, Diaz sought greater precision in his composition and executed numerous studies of tree trunks inspired by Théodore Rousseau. In Ferry Crossing with the Effect of the Setting Sun (exh. Salon 1837; Amiens, Mus. Picardie) he used the somber tones of Dutch 17th-century landscapes but alleviated them with chiaroscuro and an effect of transparency. According to Silvestre, Diaz presented his first Fontainebleau subject, View of the Gorges of Apremont (untraced), at the Salon of 1837. From 1844, the brilliance of Diaz has flecked colors intensified. The lyricism of his unfinished technique can be appreciated in the numerous landscapes that he executed in the Forest of Fontainebleau, such as the Pack in the Forest of Fontainebleau (exh. Salon 1848; Copenhagen, Ordrupgaardsaml.) in addition, the Forest of Fontainebleau (1859; U. Rochester, NY, Mem. A.G.). His minutely detailed studies, which recall Dutch painting (e.g. Study of a Silver Birch; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay), were executed on the spot and then used to compose finished pictures in the studio. Diaz turned increasingly to gypsy subject matter, as in The Gypsies (exh. Salon 1850–51; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay), using the Forest of Fontainebleau and its foliage, bathed in a shimmering light, as a background for picturesque and imaginary scenes.
In an attempt to satisfy the 19th-century vogue for the fête galante, Diaz produced numerous genre scenes and pictures featuring fantastical characters and allegorical nudes. Although such works as The Clown (Phoenix, AZ, A. Mus.), after Antoine Watteau’s Gilles (1720–21; Paris, Louvre), represent Diaz’s interpretation of 18th-century painting, the quality of his mythological groups (e.g. Venus with Cupid on her Knee, 1851; Moscow, Pushkin Mus. F.A.) suffered from his overabundant production. Diaz’s poetical style and technique inspired a number of epithets among Salon critics, from Théophile Thoré’s ‘heaps of precious stones’ to Charles Baudelaire’s ‘nauseating sweeties and sugary stuff’ on the subject of the Lamentations of Jephthah’s Daughter (exh. Salon 1846; St Petersburg, Hermitage). In response to these criticisms, Diaz executed a picture 4 m in height in 1855; the Last Tears (priv. col.) is in a drier style, with heavy contours. It symbolizes souls departing from earth and shedding their last tears before attaining eternal bliss. The last pictures that Diaz sent to the Salon, such as Don’t Enter (exh. Salon 1859; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay), marked a return to the labored qualities of his earlier work.
Diaz often reused the same compositions, with the centre of the foreground occupied by a clearing, a pond or a path, framed by rows of trees that disappear into the distance and direct the eye from the centre of the picture towards secondary gleams of light, as in the Pond under the Oaks (Paris, Mus. d’Orsay). Diaz’s late landscapes express a tormented aspect of nature and a realism that, by way of Rousseau, recalls Salomon van Ruysdael. The light came to have a more tragic quality, as in the leaden sky of the Heights of Le Jean de Paris (1867; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay), and the composition became more grandiose in the series of landscapes executed towards the end of his life (e.g. the Threatening Storm, 1870; Pasadena, CA, Norton Simon Mus.). These works have nothing of the anecdotal about them, with their almost total disregard for the human figure and for civilization, as in Undergrowth (1874; Reims, Mus. St-Denis). In 1863, Diaz had met Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille, who admired his brilliant colors, and his late landscapes may have influenced the Impressionists.
T. Silvestre: Histoire des artistes vivants français et étrangers (Paris, 1861), pp. 163–78
J. Claretie: ‘Notice biographique’, Exposition des oeuvres de N. Diaz (exh. cat., Paris, École N. Sup. B.-A., 1877)
J. Claretie: Peintres et sculpteurs contemporains, i (Paris, 1882)
Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, 1807–1876 (exh. cat., Paris, Pav. A., 1968)
P. Miquel: Le Paysage au XIXe siècle, ii: L’École de la nature (Maurs-la-Jolie, 1975), pp. 282–319