FOUNTAINEBLEAU FOREST, France - It was one of those spring days in Paris that make 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 had just spent three hours with Monet and Renoir in the Musee d'Orsay. When I went outside, I felt as if I had 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 spend 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. 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 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, a dormitory bed, and a 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 arrived 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 an art student in his 20s, although 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 that 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, although 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.
Fontainebleau's old-growth forest was his favorite subject. On a walk in the woods he once told a friend, "You see all those beautiful trees; I drew them all. ... I have all their portraits."
Rousseau died in 1867 and was buried in the cemetery at the nearby village of Chailly-en-Bière. By that time, a new generation of painters had discovered the Fontainebleau Forest, and the Hotel Siron, down the street from the Auberge Ganne, was the Barbizon destination of choice.
The inn's bohemian atmosphere was described by a tender, young Robert Louis Stevenson, who met American artist Fanny Osbourne, later his wife, in the Fontainebleau Forest area. His short essay "Forest Notes" tells of the artists and amateurs who stayed at the Hotel Siron, of the village dogs that led painters to the best scenery, and of getting up from a quiet meditation in the woods only to have an artist who had taken a position nearby ask Stevenson not to move until he could finish painting him.
The Siron is now the distinguished L'Hotellerie du Bas-Breau, named for a cluster of ancient oaks that stood at the east end of the Grande Rue near where it petered out into a cow track. I stayed one night there in a handsome chamber overlooking the garden, with its massive copper beech tree. I had a drink on the balcony, then debated having a second, if only to order it in the manner of the dandified fellow in velveteen from Stevenson's "Forest Notes" who cried out to the waiter, "Edmond, another vermouth, and make it a double."
At the end of the day, I walked along the Grande Rue, passing white and purple lilac bushes in full, perfumed bloom. At the west edge of the village, houses yield to farm fields, and a marker points out the setting of L'Angelus. Millet's painting of peasants praying in a potato field at sunset was hardly noticed by art critics when it was completed in the late 1850s but is now a French icon so famous that it appears on tickets to the d'Orsay.
Millet was an idiosyncratic painter, part realist, part romantic, compelled by the poor, slow country folk of France, who led lives totally unlike those of bourgeois city people during the Second Empire of Napoleon III.
In Barbizon, where the traditional rhythms of country life still prevailed, Millet found subjects aplenty - gleaners, winnowers, and other toilers on the land. He settled in 1849 with his wife and nine children in a house on the Grande Rue, now a private museum I had toured on a previous visit to Barbizon.
It was crowded with Millet memorabilia, including one of his palettes and a photograph of the village girl thought to have served as a model for the praying peasant in L'Angelus. The next day I moved to the nearby Auberge des Alouettes, one star poorer than the L'Hotellerie du Bas-Breau, in the official French tourist bureau scheme of things, but cheaper by half. A long block back from the Grande Rue, it occupies a capacious mansion built in 1883 by Paris philosopher Gabriel Seailles, whose wife, Jeanne, was a painter. There is a handsomely decorated restaurant, with several floors of guest rooms above.
I got a simply furnished double under the roof that reminded me of the dormitory at the Auberge Ganne. It had a metal balcony that looked as if it might give way if I ate too much for dinner, which, of course, I did. The $45 prix fixe included a foie gras salad, sauteed dorade (a delicate white fish), local cheese, and a dessert, which I declined. Instead, I went up to my room and read myself to sleep with Honore de Balzac's Cousin Bette, a tale of revenge and woe set in the Paris of Millet, Corot and Rousseau.
The next day was just as fair as the one before, perfect for an expedition into the great royal forest where saintly Louis IX (1214-70) hunted with Egyptian hounds and Francis I (1708-65) rode in a cavalcade of 10,000 horses.
The artistic tribe of the 19th century sauntered into the woods after breakfast wearing broad-brimmed hats and gaiters, carrying their paints, easels, canvases, parasols, camp stools, and nourishment with them. Picnic lunches from the Auberge Ganne included two hard-boiled eggs, cold meat left over from dinner, a piece of cheese, salt, and a bottle of wine.
I went into the woods on a bike rented in the village, with a pate de campagne baguette sandwich and a bottle of water. I had a map but doubt that I could have gotten lost even if I had tried because almost every path, ancient oak and oddly shaped boulder was sign-posted. Since the public discovered the forest, it has been civilized so that it now seems as benign as Winnie-the-Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood.
I headed for the Gorges d'Apremont about a mile southeast of Barbizon.
With its mounds of smooth limestone boulders - a singular Fontainebleau Forest geological feature - it always attracted painters who thought it wild and forbidding. But to call the pleasant, rock-strewn valley a gorge seemed a gross overstatement. What the Barbizon painters would have made of Yosemite or the Grand Canyon I could only wonder as I ate lunch on the convenient tabletop of a boulder that did double duty as a couch after I polished off my picnic.
But as the warm noonday sun found me, doves murmured, and the leaves danced on the breeze, the forest's gentle magic began to work on me, as it had on the imaginations of 19th-century artists. Perhaps more awesome scenery would have stilled their brushes.
I ruminated on that for a while and then on the old art-versus-nature question, which I resolved. Why choose between the two when both are so freely offered by springtime in France?
Where to stay
Auberge des Alouettes,
4 Rue Antoine Barye, 1-60-66-41-98, www.barbizon.net, has clean, amiable, if slightly threadbare rooms above a restaurant in an eclectic 1883 country villa built for philosopher Gabriel Seailles and his artist-wife, Jeanne; doubles start around $80, including breakfast; three-course dinner about $45.
L'Hotellerie du Bas-Breau, 22 Grande Rue, 1-60-66-40-05 or 1-800-735-2478, www.relaischateaux.fr/basbreau, was a favorite haunt of many Barbizon artists, though its most famous guest was the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. There are a swimming pool, a pleasant garden, and a gourmet restaurant; doubles start around $355; three-course dinner about $100.
Where to eat
Auberge du Grand-Veneur, on Highway N7 near Barbizon, 1-60-66-40-44, is an old French country inn famous for game grilled at a yawning fireplace in the elegant dining room; three-course dinner about $100.
Boucherie de l'Angelus,
64 Grande Rue, 1-60-66-40-27, can provide the makings for an excellent picnic lunch.
Brasserie L'Atelier les Pleiades, 21 Grande Rue, 1-60-66-40-25, is a casual restaurant with a terrace featuring dishes such as moules-frites; two-course dinner about $40. It is in the stylish new Hotel les Pleiades, set to open in early summer. The hotel will have a swimming pool and 23 rooms; doubles will start around $250.
To learn more
French Government Tourist Office, www.franceguide.com.
Fountainebleau Tourist Office, 4 Rue Royale, 1-60-74-99-99, www.uk.fontainebleau-tourisme.com.
There is a small tourist office in the village of Barbizon on Rue Theodore Rousseau near the Salon des Fetes.
- Los Angeles Times