Into the Woods; National Gallery Focuses on French Forest

Article excerpt

Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch , THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Certain rural landscapes loom large in the history of art as agents of creative change. The Hudson River Valley inspired painters to define a distinctly American vision of the wilderness in the decades before the Civil War. Around the same time in France, a royal hunting ground about 35 miles southeast of Paris attracted artists to depict its rugged terrain with a heightened sense of naturalism.

This large tract, known as the Forest of Fontainebleau, is where the Barbizon school took root and the first seeds of impressionism were sown. Now it is the subject of a six-gallery exhibition at the National Gallery of Art celebrating the art of open-air painting and photography. A collaborative effort, the contextual show was organized by curators Kimberly Jones and Sarah Kennel of the National Gallery of Art and curator Helga Aurisch of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The rich mix of 100 paintings, drawings, photographs and tourist souvenirs supplies the back story to important advancements in 19th-century art by relating them to the place where they were conceived. It situates green thickets, starry nights and red-streaked skies by such well-known artists as Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Jean Francois Millet and Claude Monet within the well-traveled Fontainebleau forest and nearby villages of Barbizon and Chailly.

This relational view is expanded through early photographs of the forest and its environs. Prints made from paper negatives and collodion processes are hung next to paintings and drawings to reveal a shared vision of place across different media. Monet's majestic tree-lined scene of the road through Fontainebleau, for example, is nearly identical to the pictures shot earlier by photographers Gustave Le Gray and Eugene Cuvelier.

The similarities are no accident. Some early French photographers were trained as painters, while landscape painters, including Corot and Millet, collected photographic nature studies. Everyone was focused on the same turf.

The allure of the French forest was its diverse topography, offering vistas as compelling as those in Italy, where open-air painting flourished. The second gallery reflects the appeal in closely observed studies of rocky plateaus and gorges, and forests of oak and beech trees. Oil sketches by Corot, who discovered Fontainebleau in the 1820s, and photographs by Le Gray are particularly evocative in capturing the massive trunks and gnarly branches of oaks prized for their age. Such depictions of ancient trees paid tribute to the origins of the French nation in much the same way that American painters venerated the woods of the Hudson River Valley for their spiritual and nationalistic associations.

From the drawings and paintings made in the forest came grander, more polished canvases created in the studio for Salon exhibitions. Among the most dramatic of these large scenes is Corot's 1834 "Forest of Fontainebleau," a somber counterpart to his later, more feathery impressions of valleys and glades.

Such landscapes helped popularize Fontainebleau as a requisite stop for serious painters. From the 1830s through the 1870s, successive generations of artists, including several foreigners represented in the exhibit, explored the French forest from colonies set up in surrounding villages. Even such postimpressionists as Paul Cezanne and Georges Seurat made visits well after its heyday.

The curators note that nearly 700 artists were guests at local inns such as the Auberge Ganne in Barbizon, started by a tailor and his grocer wife. Camaraderie among these painters and photographers, as captured in Pierre Auguste Renoir's group portrait "The Inn of Mother Anthony," no doubt resulted in cross-fertilization of ideas. …