RETREAT FROM PARIS; A New Exhibition Opening Next Week Celebrates the Forest of Fontainebleau That Inspired the Barbizon Painters. Philippa Stockley Follows in Their Footsteps

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Byline: Philippa Stockley

FIFTY-FIVE miles south from Paris and a million miles in spirit, at the far end of the tiny village of Barbizon in Seine et Marne, with its one long main street, rue Grande, lined by stone-built and shuttered houses swathed in wisteria and pretty roses, you find yourself at the sudden edge of the vast and magical forest of Fontainebleau.

In Barbizon, from 1830, painters such as Theodore (no relation to Douanier) Rousseau, Gustave Corot, the young Claude Monet and Jean-Francois Millet, fed-up with the stiff figurative rules of formal French Academy painting, started to paint open-air in the forest -- paving the way for Impressionism later in the century.

Pestered by these bearded young men to offer them lodging, clever young Madame Ganne, the village greengrocer, reopened her house at 92, rue Grande, as the Auberge Ganne. Now a museum, this lovely, low-slung timbered building still has the alcohol-fuelled, impromptupainted furniture and panels by now world-famous artists who argued and sang, drank copious amounts of cheap local wine and painted here. There is also a re-created dining room and a dormitory, still with bravura sketches on its plaster walls; plus a significant collection of Barbizon paintings, including a wonderful view of painters at work by Jules Coignet.

The modernised Pleiades Hotel five minutes' stroll from the forest edge has excellent food cooked by a Michelinstarred chef, or choose the beamed, atmospheric Hotellerie du Bas-Breau over the road. Highlights include Millet's studio, with its 17th-century furniture and huge dose of charm, which he built from a barn on the rue Grande, or Theodore Rousseau's a bit further down the street. If on a budget, take a picnic of creamy local brie, bread and wine and wander in to the forest and enjoy its very special atmosphere.

In the 17th century the airy, magical forest of Fontainebleau was the favoured hunting ground of King Henry IV, later of Louis XV and doomed Louis XVI, who all shot here for boar and deer. Fontainebleau Palace, with its wonderful lake and lawns, was once the centre for royal hunting escapades, fun and sexual encounters for about six weeks a year.

Henry's and then Louis's courts and their hangers-on decamped from Paris to enjoy the bucolic surroundings, as women in shimmering silks vied with the peacocks and prostitutes down from the capital. They would stroll on lawns created by landscape gardener Andre le Notre, whom Louis had stolen from his neighbour's spectacular chateau, Vaux Le Vicomte. For good measure he threw the chateau owner in jail -- and never let him out again.

Fontainebleau Palace's piecemeal development over time adds to its rambling charm. A medieval tower still exists, while, in his turn, Napoleon knocked down an entire wing in favour of decorative railings. The sensational ballroom and the Hall of Stags, full of important bronzes, are matched elsewhere by wall paintings, trompe-l'oeil marble and curvaceous carved naked figures that in many respects make Versailles seem a trifle dull. …