It was one of those spring days in Paris that makes even the French smile. The trees along the Boulevard St. Germain were celery green, and the air was filled with the smell of bakery goods. I’d just spent three hours with Monet and Renoir in the Musee d’Orsay. When I walked outside, I felt as if I’d walked into an Impressionist painting, all bright color and sparkling light.
Lunch at the nearby Cafe Voltaire and an afternoon in the Louvre were on my agenda. But the day was too beautiful to waste indoors, and I was planning a little art history field trip anyway. So I picked up a rental car and headed for Barbizon, about 35 miles southeast of Paris. Tucked on the edge of Fontainebleau Forest, the village was visited and beloved by many of the 19th century artists whose landscapes hang in gilt frames on the walls of the Musee d’Orsay.
I can’t draw a stick figure and just wanted to get out into the fine French countryside, where those with actual artistic talent took their easels and palettes with them. Paint in tubes, introduced in 1834, and the completion of a railway line to the area in 1849 facilitated excursions by the first generation of Fontainebleau artists to discover that the best way to paint the landscape was to go outdoors.
It seems obvious to us now but was revolutionary idea in 1820, when magnificently stultifying paintings with historical and mythological themes, executed in studios, held sway at the Paris Salon and landscape was little more than wallpaper.
Jean-Francois Millet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Theodore Rousseau (not to be confused with Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau, a post-Impressionist) were the nucleus of an artistic movement that lasted from about 1830 to 1860, variously known as the En Plein Air, Barbizon and 1830 School. In the village of Barbizon, they revived the art of landscape painting, paving the way for the Impressionists who arrived in the forest 30 years later.
I made it out of the city in less than 30 minutes with the windows rolled down and wide open fields on both sides of the A6 Autoroute. The ride brought to mind an old question: Which is better, nature or art -- a field of bright yellow rapeseed or Claude Monet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” partly painted near Barbizon around 1865?
There are fine stone villages all around Fontainebleau Forest, but Barbizon will ever be associated with the school of painters for a simple reason: Along its one narrow Grande Rue were several inns that catered to starving artists. At the Auberge Ganne, run by Francois Ganne and his formidable wife, Edmee, and then at the nearby Hotel Siron, a painter could get a hearty dinner, dormitory bed and sack lunch to take into the woods for a paltry sum, and if he couldn’t pay, credit was readily extended.
With its stylish restaurants, shops and galleries, Barbizon is now too gentrified for impecunious artists but is still the perfect model of a village in the French countryside. I got here in time to visit the quaintly restored, blue-shuttered Auberge Ganne, part of a small local museum dedicated to Barbizon School art. The snug artists’ dormitory is upstairs, and the dining room is on the first floor with cupboards and doors decorated by many of the painters who caroused there.
Corot was an early Auberge Ganne habitue. The son of a prosperous Paris milliner, he began dabbling in the Fontainebleau Forest as a twentysomething art student, though it wasn’t until his first trip to Italy in 1825 -- a virtual requirement for painters at the time -- that critics began to take note of his strikingly fresh historical landscapes, depicting Salon-approved scenes but infused with color and light Corot could have captured only by painting in the open air of this forest.
In 1859, when the landlord’s daughter married Eugene Cuvelier, one of the first photographers to study the forest with a camera, a by-then-portly, pipe-smoking Corot led the drinking and dancing at the Auberge Ganne.
The Barbizon School Museum recently acquired one of Corot’s first signed landscapes, dated 1822, depicting the blasted-out trunk of a Fontainebleau tree. It is displayed at the museum’s picture gallery near the inn with works by other Barbizon artists such as Rousseau and his disciple Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Pena; the successful Parisian sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye; the animal painters Constant Troyon, known for his images of cows, and Charles Jacque, who was so fascinated by chickens that he started a poultry farm.
The museum’s picture gallery is housed in the former home of Rousseau, the true lodestar of the Barbizon group, though his work was long excluded from the Salon because critics said it lacked painterly technique. But by 1847, when he bought his simple two-story cottage in Barbizon, the art world was beginning to reevaluate his rich, deep landscapes, executed en plein air during countless, protracted visits to the same scenes.
Fontainebleau’s old-growth forest was his favorite subject. On a walk in the woods he once told a friend, “You see all those beautiful trees; I drew them all . . . I have all their portraits.”
Rousseau died in 1867 and was buried in the cemetery at the nearby village of Chailly-en-Biere. By that time, a new generation of painters had discovered the Fontainebleau Forest and the Hotel Siron, down the street from the Auberge Ganne, was the Barbizon destination of choice.
The inn’s bohemian atmosphere was described by a tender, young Robert Louis Stevenson, who met American artist Fanny Osbourne, later his wife, in the Fontainebleau Forest area. His short essay “Forest Notes” tells of the artists and amateurs who stayed at the Hotel Siron, of the village dogs that led painters to the best scenery and of getting up from a quiet meditation in the woods only to have an artist who’d taken a position nearby ask Stevenson not to move until he could finish painting him.
The Siron is now the distinguished L’Hotellerie du Bas-Breau, named for a cluster of ancient oaks that stood at the east end of the Grande Rue near where it petered out into a cow track. I stayed one night there in a handsome chamber overlooking the garden, with its massive copper beech tree. I had a drink on the balcony, then debated having a second, if only to order it in the manner of the dandified fellow in velveteen from Stevenson’s “Forest Notes” who cried out to the waiter, “Edmond, another vermouth, and make it a double.”
At the end of the day, I walked along the Grande Rue, passing white and purple lilac bushes in full, perfumed bloom. At the west edge of the village, houses yield to farm fields, and a marker points out the setting of “L’Angelus.” Millet’s painting of peasants praying in a potato field at sunset was hardly noticed by art critics when it was completed in the late 1850s but is now a French icon so famous that it appears on tickets to the d’Orsay.
Millet was an idiosyncratic painter, part realist, part romantic, compelled by the poor, slow country folk of France, who led lives totally unlike those of bourgeois city people during the Second Empire of Napoleon III.
In Barbizon, where the traditional rhythms of country life still prevailed, Millet found subjects aplenty -- gleaners, winnowers and other toilers on the land. He settled in 1849 with his wife and nine children in a house on the Grande Rue, now a private museum I’d toured on a previous visit to Barbizon. It was crowded with Millet memorabilia, including one of his palettes and a photograph of the village girl thought to have served as a model for the praying peasant in “L’Angelus.”
I sat down to dinner that night in the formal dining room at the L’Hotellerie du Bas-Breau thinking about Corot, Millet and Rousseau, the great triumvirate of the Barbizon School. But they and their compatriots had no manifesto, only the shared habit of cavorting in Barbizon and painting landscapes outdoors in Fontainebleau Forest.
The waiter was serving my coquilles St. Jacques when an elderly man entered and a scene out of “Forest Notes” unfolded. The gentleman had the gravitas of a Napoleonic War hero and was accompanied by a little white pooch. Immediately a silver water bowl was produced for the dog and placed under the table.
Near the end of the elegantly presented meal, the house tabby cat tiptoed across the dining room. A torrent of barks erupted from under the table and the dog appeared, teeth bared, amid the convulsing napery. Fortunately, the little beast was on a leash, or there would have been a disaster.
The next day I moved to the nearby Auberge des Alouettes, one star poorer than the L’Hotellerie du Bas-Breau, in the official French tourist bureau scheme of things, but cheaper by half. A long block back from the Grande Rue, it occupies a capacious mansion built in 1883 by Paris philosopher Gabriel Seailles, whose wife, Jeanne, was a painter. There is a handsomely decorated restaurant with several floors of guest rooms above.
I got a simply furnished double under the roof that reminded me of the dormitory at the Auberge Ganne. It had a metal balcony that looked as if it might give way if I ate too much for dinner, which, of course, I did. The $45 prix fixe included a foie gras salad, sauteed dorade (a delicate white fish), local cheese and a dessert I declined. Instead, I went up to my room and read myself to sleep with Honore de Balzac’s “Cousin Bette,” a tale of revenge and woe set in the Paris of Millet, Corot and Rousseau.
The next day was just as fair as the one before, perfect for an expedition into the great royal forest where saintly Louis IX (1214-70) hunted with Egyptian hounds and Francis I (1708-65) rode in a cavalcade of 10,000 horses.
The artistic tribe of the 19th century sauntered into the woods after breakfast wearing broad-brimmed hats and gaiters, carrying their paints, easels, canvases, parasols, camp stools and nourishment with them. Picnic lunches from the Auberge Ganne included two hard-boiled eggs, cold meat left over from dinner, a piece of cheese, salt and a bottle of wine.
I went into the woods on a bike rented in the village, with a pate de campagne baguette sandwich and a bottle of water. I had a map but doubt that I could have gotten lost even if I’d tried because almost every path, ancient oak and oddly shaped boulder was sign-posted. Since the public discovered the forest, it has been civilized so that it now seems as benign as Winnie-the-Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood.
Hordes of sightseers began visiting Fontainebleau Forest around 1850, led by a dauntless guidebook writer named Claude-Francois Denecourt, who established almost 200 miles of trails and built follies in the woods. Their litter and noise annoyed the painters, who fled deeper into the forest, only to discover more depredations by loggers and quarry workers who had cut 3 million stones to pave the sidewalks of Paris.
Rousseau especially loathed the developments and asked Napoleon III to formally save the area. “I ask for your protection, Monseigneur, for these old trees,” he wrote in an 1852 petition that bore fruit nine years later when the emperor created a 4,000-acre preserve in the forest near Barbizon.
I entered the woods along the oft-painted Allee aux Vaches and found schoolchildren swarming around nearby sites such as the plaque dedicated to Rousseau and Millet at Bas-Breau and the ersatz Cave of the Brigands. But it was a simple matter to get away from the crowds: I headed for the Gorges d’Apremont about a mile southeast of Barbizon.
With its mounds of smooth limestone boulders -- a singular Fontainebleau Forest geological feature -- it always attracted painters who thought it wild and forbidding. But to call the pleasant, rock-strewn valley a gorge seemed to me a gross overstatement. What the Barbizon painters would have made of Yosemite or the Grand Canyon I could only wonder as I ate lunch on the convenient tabletop of a boulder that did double duty as a couch after I polished off my picnic.
But as the warm noonday sun found me, doves sang and the leaves danced on the breeze, the forest’s gentle magic began to work on me, as it had on the imaginations of 19th century artists. Perhaps more awesome scenery would have stilled their brushes.
I ruminated on that for a while and then on the old art versus nature question, which I resolved. Why choose between the two when both are so freely offered by springtime in France?