On view through Sunday, October 19, 2008 at the Audrey Jones Beck Building of the MFAH
“A tree is an edifice, a forest a city, and among all the forests, the Forest of Fontainebleau is a monument,” Victor Hugo wrote in 1872, expressing the love and admiration of this magical place that he shared with his fellow Parisians and with generations of French landscape painters in particular.
This exhibition transports the viewers deep into the shady glens and dramatic gorges, over the rugged terrain of giant boulders, and to the edges marshes that make up the varied topography of this former royal hunting domain which became the cradle and crucible of French landscape painting.
The exhibition traces the steps of three generations of painters who sought out Fontainebleau as their ‘natural studio’ between the 1820s and 1870s. Located only 35 miles from Paris, virtually unspoiled and uninhabited yet easily accessible, it was the ideal site to develop plein air painting in France. Corot’s Little Easel Carrier, 1823-24, is not only an early and astonishingly fresh example, but also illustrates the logistics of working out of doors. Equipped with portable easels, folding umbrellas and stools, the artists set out from one of the surrounding villages like Barbizon or Chailly to grasp nature as she revealed herself directly before their eyes. Although the choice of motifs, scale, sense of color as well as brushwork techniques change from one generation to the next, the feeling of immediacy and the freshness of natural phenomena closely observed prevail throughout. Grouped together as the Barbizon School, painters like Rousseau, Daubigny, and Courbet took the genre of French landscape painting to new heights in a movement which was to culminate in the light-filled canvases of the young impressionists, beautifully represented by Monet’s The Bodmer Oak, Fontainebleau Forest, 1865.
Besides natural aspects of the forest, which fall under topography, weather, rocks and trees, village life is explored in depth. No one has ever captured the dignity of people working the land with more sensitivity and empathy than Jean-François Millet, whose affinity for village life was so great that he settled in Barbizon. His delicate pastels of the villagers, such as Shepherdess Knitting, outside the Village of Barbizon, 1860-62, have become icons of a simpler, better life. Although most artists continued to live in Paris, during the summer months as many as one hundred would descend upon Babizon, transforming it literally into the ‘colony of colonies.’ During the years of the hey-day of the painters’ colony a number of pioneers in the new medium of photography, including Gustave LeGray, Eugène Cuvelier, and John B. Green, first explored landscape photography in the Forest of Fontainebleau. The comparison of Cuvelier’s Beech Tree near the Bodmer, of the early 1860s, with Monet’s work reveals both the close proximity and the creative rivalry between artists working in different media, both inspired by the same monumentality to be found in the Forest of Fontainebleau.