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Fontainebleau and Barbizon: 150 Years Later

In my last post, I talked about the Forest of Fontainebleau and the walking maps that Parisians used to explore it in the 1800s. And while I certainly did not trek the 24 miles through the wilderness that Charles-François Denecourt proposed as a day hike, I did have the opportunity to explore the area this summer.

Time has not necessarily been kind to the sites French artists chose to paint over a century ago. The Ile de La Jatte, immortalized in Georges Seurat's famous painting, now boasts a dizzying array of apartment buildings and a sports club; its famous park is now unrecognizably small. However, famous sites such as the Gare St-Lazare, which figures in a series by Claude Monet, remains largely unchanged. Given these precedents, I really didn't know what to expect of the village of Barbizon and the Forest of Fontainebleau over 150 years since Corot, Millet, and their fellow artists descended on them for fresh artistic inspiration.

To reach the forest, one first must pass through the town of Fontainebleau. I gather that much has changed in the intervening years. While the palace still has substantial grounds and gardens, urban development surrounds it on all sides. With such dense and stylistically French construction, I completely missed the bus stop for the palace, which now blends in quite well to its surroundings. The Palace has been immaculately preserved and still remains a huge draw for tourists as it has since the time of the Barbizon artists.

While not immune to the forces of change, the village of Barbizon has certainly resisted them. This was most immediately noticeable in the accessibility of the village. During the 1800s, the Barbizon artists got off their hour-long train ride at Melun and had to take a stagecoach; I got off my 45 minute-long ride at Fontainebleau and had to take a taxi, as the village is still only reachable by private transportation. The peasants and farms have now been replaced by upscale, gated properties making this feel more like an affluent suburb than a small artist’s community. Yet the determination of Barbizon to uphold its artistic past is very present. The town motto is now “The Village of Painters,” and refers not only to the Barbizon school, but also to the numerous artist's studios lining the main street. The studios of Rousseau and Millet still stand and have been modified into art museums. Surprisingly, the Ganne Inn not only stands, but has been preserved in its original state. One can still see the cupboards, doors, and walls that the artists painted during their many rowdy evenings together. Their presence can be felt everywhere in Barbizon—although I'm sure naming all the roads after them helps.

Nature, however, has a way of enduring. The forest still boasts the same iconic features and views that drew the Barbizon artists. The famous oaks and rocks are still there and still marked with signs. No doubt, Rousseau's petition to Napoleon III to set aside the forest as a nature preserve paid off. The Apremont Gorge still offers the same breathtaking view over the land. Charles-Francois Denecourt's influence did not diminish—in fact, it amplified. His walking paths, and those of his successor Colinet have been combined and carefully marked—still with blue, yellow, and red stripes and arrows on trees and rocks! The forest may not have changed, but the people have. Walking from Barbizon to Fontainebleau (a challenging two hour walk), I saw only a few people and what appeared to be one artist. Time may have eroded some structures and protected others, but the artistic influence of the forest of Fontainebleau and the village of Barbizon remains ever strong.

To explore more remnants of this period, check out the museum’s Souvenirs of the Barbizon: Photographs, Paintings, and Works on Paper before it closes this Sunday.

—Matt K., curatorial intern, Photography Department