Thanks to its unique combination of sand plains, limestone plateaus, and tree-filled forests, the region known as the Forest of Fontainebleau offers a tableau of natural beauty rarely seen. Add to that beauty a long, rich history dating back to the days of the Druids, it becomes easy to understand how these formal royal hunting grounds seized as national property during the French Revolution take on a unique place in the French national psyche. In the Forest of Fontainebleau: Painters and Photographers from Corot to Monet, an exhibition now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, tries to convey some of the depth and breadth of that hold the forest, once known as the “desert of the Gauls,” has on the soul of the French. From the time that Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot began painting in the forest in the 1820s (his The Forest of Fontainebleau, from 1846, appears above) up through the advent of the Claude Monet and the Impressionists in the 1880s, many thousands of paintings were made there, an astounding 1,800 of which were exhibited at the Paris Salon. When photography became a viable artistic medium, some of the earliest experiments in landscape photography took place in that natural wonderland. In this exhibition and accompanying catalogue, we see the origins of the love of nature more commonly associated with Impressionism today, the heavy-handed commercialization of the pristine beauty, and the conservationism that ultimately saved the forest of Fountainebleau—all through the eyes of the artists who loved it most.
In the early nineteenth century, Italy stood as the place where the aspiring open air landscape artist needed to learn his trade. Corot himself actually spent three years in Italy in the 1820s before returning to his native France and Fontainebleau. Although tastemakers such as Stendhal and John Ruskin disliked the unusual beauty of Fontainebleau (Ruskin called its “hideous rocks… never hideous enough to please me”), other authors such as George Sand and Gustave Flaubert seized upon the region’s appeal and promoted it to the intelligentsia. Within a short time, many artists follow Corot’s example and a small artists’ colony forms in the nearby town of Barbizon, which gave the Barbizon school its name. “For the group of artists who colonized Barbizon,” Kimberly Jones writes in her catalogue essay, “Landscapes, Legends, Souvenirs, Fantasies: The Forest of Fontainebleau in the Nineteenth Century,” “Fontainebleau was more than an open-air studio; it was a laboratory in which they examined the subtle shifts in time of day, season, and atmospheric change with an almost scientific rigor.” Jean-François Millet’s Solitude (above, from 1853) shows the forest in winter in a style that presages the Impressionists by decades. Fontainebleau offered a veritable cornucopia of landscapes and effects upon those scenes for the artist. This exhibition provides ample examples of this endless source of material mined by ambitious artists for decades.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), The Bodmer Oak, Fontainebleau Forest, 1865; oil on canvas; Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Sam Salz and Bequest of Julia W. Emmons, by exchange (64.210)
As word spread of Fontainebleau’s beauty, tourists began to flood the region in the footsteps of the artists. Contemporary cartoonists lampooned the distress of landscapists interrupted by people wandering into their pictures. In 1849, train service linking Paris and the forest put the natural setting a mere hour’s travel away, exploding the number of day trippers (while also making the forest more accessible to city-bound artists, too). Claude-Francois Denecourt, a local entrepreneur, saw an opportunity to unite his love of the area with his love of profit and began promoting the forest of Fontainebleau “experience” in a way that we would now call almost Disney-esque. “Denecourt peddled his own unique vision of the Forest of Fontainebleau,” Jones writes, “one in which every rock, tree, and clearing was a place of wonder, in which history and fantasy, nature and art merged into an extraordinary, if fictitious whole.” Denecourt slapped famous names from Charlemagne to Napoleon onto features of the landscape, many of which were later painted time and again. Artists such as Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and Delacroix found their names bestowed upon landmarks. Monet’s The Bodmer Oak, Fontainebleau Forest (above, from 1865) commemorates one of the many trees Denecourt dubbed with fame. Denecourt eventually designed pathways through the forest to help direct visitors. “He molded and shaped the visitor’s experience,” Jones laments. “The small blue arrows he placed throughout the forest to guide visitors were like bold brushstrokes against an otherwise virgin canvas.” By the 1870s, refreshment stands and souvenir shops plunged the final arrow into the heart of the artists who witnessed the commercialization of their inspirational source and spiritual sanctuary. The parallels between Denecourt’s work and modern despoiling in the name of commerce are too blatant for Jones to even mention.
Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867), The Cave, 1828-1830; oil on paper mounted on canvas; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Frank Heller and the European Painting Acquisition Fund
Over time, Denecourt grew even more daring in developing his fictions, going so far as to create caves and caverns and devising elaborate “histories” for them to entice the curious. Théodore Rousseau, who painted The Cave (above, from 1828-1830), one of the natural rock formations, finally had enough of Denecourt’s fairytales and others who were ruining the forest with logging and the introduction of non-indigenous types of trees. Rousseau petitioned the government in 1861 and won, successfully protecting a large section of the forest from development, thus creating the first nature preserve in history. Rousseau “was the artist who most consistently represented the forest at the Salon,” according to Simon Kelly in his essay, “The Mystery of the Forest: Paintings of Fontainebleau at the Salon,” eventually earning the nickname “The Ruisdael of the Forest of Fontainebleau.” Kelly outlines the growth of landscape painting, especially depictions of Fontainebleau, at the Salon, with thirty percent of the works exhibited in 1860 being landscapes and a peak of seventy-seven landscapes in 1880. Rousseau and others worked to preserve the Fontainebleau they knew through these exhibited works as much as by their political action. Sadly, by the time that later artists such as Cezanne, Seurat, and even Picasso came to Fontainebleau, the damage had been done and the Fontainebleau of the Barbizon School existed only in paint and memory.
Eugène Cuvelier (1837-1900), Carrefour de l'Epine, early 1860s; salted paper print from paper negative; National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1995
Sarah Kennel’s essay, “An Infinite Museum: Photography in the Forest of Fontainebleau,” helps bridge the perceived gap between landscape painting and landscape photography in the nineteenth century. Advances in photographic technology as much as the introduction of train access to Fontainebleau made it easier for early photographers to bring their gear into the open air. Gustave Le Gray, a painter turned photographer, brought his painterly sensibilities to the new medium. Eugène Cuvelier, who lived in Barbizon and knew both Rousseau and Millet, photographed the forest year round and in all types of weather conditions, taking the atmospheric “experiments” of the painters to another level. Cuvelier’s Carrefour de l'Epine (above, from the early 1860s) shows his use of the salted paper print, which, as Kennel explains, “offer[ed] a rich and subtle tonal range that both captures detail and suggests broad harmonies of light and dark,” making it perfect for landscape photography. In Cuvelier’s unpopulated photographs of Fontainebleau, we see the first true attempts at landscape photography as the technology of the medium itself began to catch up to the desires of it’s proponents.
Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), Two Men Turning over the Soil, 1866; pastel and black conté crayon on cream wove paper; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Quincy Adams Shaw through Quincy Adams Shaw, Jr., and Mrs. Marian Shaw Haughton
Cuvelier rarely photographed the people of the Fontainebleau region, but other photographers did. The catalogue and exhibit allow the viewer to put these photographs of these simple people next to the romanticized depictions of their life done by Millet in works such as Two Men Turning over the Soil (above, from 1866). After so many images of the landscape itself, it’s easy to forget the people who lived near the forest long before artists “discovered” it. The story of the Forest of Fontainebleau is really the story of the people who came to it and both took from it and gave to it, to varying degrees. For every Denecourt that robbed from it, there was a Rousseau to fill it up again. I remember seeing the Renoir Landscapes exhibition at the PMA last year (my review here) and coming away amazed at what an influence Fontainebleau and the Barbizon School had on Renoir, who came there with the second generation of the Impressionists as Fontainebleau itself began to fade away. After reading In the Forest of Fontainebleau: Painters and Photographers from Corot to Monet, it’s hard to imagine Renoir reacting any other way.
[Many thanks to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, for providing me with a review copy of In the Forest of Fontainebleau: Painters and Photographers from Corot to Monet and for the images above from the exhibition.]