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The “Very Remarkable” Forest of Fontainebleau

In the middle of summer vacation season, it’s hard to ignore tourism—be it the influx of tourists coming to Chicago or those of us like myself hoping to travel out-of-state. What is it that draws us to a certain area at a particular time? One historic answer can be found by turning back the clock 150 years to consider the tourist attraction of the Forest of Fontainebleau, a short train ride outside of Paris and one of the main subjects of the exhibition Souvenirs of the Barbizon: Photographs, Paintings, and Works on Paper.

Over four times the size of New York’s Central Park, the Forest of Fontainebleau was nevertheless slow to gain attention in the early 1800s. Back then, the few printed tourist guides for the area focused on the Royal Chateau of Fontainebleau, treating the forest and nearby village of Barbizon as afterthoughts.

One French entrepreneur overturned this imbalance almost single-handedly. Charles-François Denecourt wrote a host of illustrated tourist books and self-guided walking maps that appealed to the Parisian masses hoping to escape the hot and crowded city for a day. He romanticized and sensationalized the forest (at times even fabricating its history!) by giving names to the gargantuan oaks, dramatic rocks, and scenic vistas that were spread over the landscape. Denecourt’s efforts won over Parisian citizens and they soon flocked to the forest in droves.

Fortunately, the Art Institute recently added one of these original walking maps to the collection, which we are thrilled to have on display in Gallery 2. In this map, Denecourt lays out four possible walking paths—the shortest is 17 miles and the longest is a staggering 24 miles! On the map, Denecourt marks sites that he deems “very remarkable” with a small French flag and sites that are only “ordinary” with a white flag. Tellingly, these ordinary attractions are few and far between. The landscape is instead littered with “very remarkable” destinations with such majestic names as “The Fountain of Desire” and “The View of Queen Amélie.” To prevent these tourists from getting lost while on one of his paths, Denecourt had blue and red arrows painted on the trunks of trees, effectively taming the Forest famous for its chaotic landscape.

Coupled with the hundreds of thousands of tourists cycling through the area each year, these interventions proved disconcerting for Barbizon artists who wanted to depict the forest as natural and pristine. The fame that tourist publications and canvases created had now become a double-edged sword: would the artists depict the heavily frequented sites or opt for something off the beaten path? Find the answer when Souvenirs of the Barbizon opens this weekend and you’ll come to see how tourist guides and works of art helped create one of France’s most treasured landmarks.

—Matt K., curatorial intern, Photography Department