Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was a transitional figure in the development of landscape painting. He was immersed in the venerable tradition of French artists in Rome who produced idealized views peopled with small biblical or classical figures, yet he also worked directly from nature. He became associated with the Barbizon School, named after a small village in the Forest of Fontainebleau about thirty miles southeast of Paris. This was an informal collective of artists dedicated to the direct observation of nature and rural life, an idea that was considered avant-garde at the time. Corot and his colleagues were among the first French artists to work almost exclusively en plein air, or outdoors.
"Ruins of the Château de Pierrefonds" depicts a small town in northern France with a medieval castle fallen into ruins. The building’s dilapidated condition and the reference to the Middle Ages make it a typical Romantic motif. Themes of decay and a lost past appealed to Corot; they reflected nostalgia for a way of life that was rapidly disappearing from nineteenth-century France.
By the time Corot reworked this painting in 1866/67, the Château de Pierrefonds was no longer a ruin. At the request of Napoleon III, it was restored in the late 1850s by the architect Viollet-le-Duc.