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Barbizon's natural artistry

The village on the edge of the Fountainebleau Forest can be found in the landscapes of 19th century artists who were drawn there by its beauty.

May 31, 2009|Susan Spano

FOUNTAINEBLEAU FOREST, FRANCE — 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.

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