Fruitful Forest


France’s Fontainebleau Produced Fountain of Creativity

In the mid-19th century, 35 miles south of Paris, thanks to a burgeoning train system and the advent of portable paints, a small cadre of artists was about to embark on a relationship with nature that would forever change the face of landscape painting.

The National Gallery of Art chronicles this movement in a thorough—but at times plodding—new exhibition dubbed “In the Forest of Fontainebleau: Painters and Photographers from Corot to Monet.”

Highlighting more than 100 works by renowned painters such as Claude Monet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau, and photographers Gustave Le Gray and Constant Alexandre Famin, the exhibition celebrates the stunningly varied terrain of the Fontainebleau Forest, and the way in which mixed media sheds separate light on identical subjects.

Many of the artists who assembled at Fontainebleau had practiced their landscape painting in the more cultivated, pristine gardens of Italy. But at Fontainebleau, they turned their attention to nature in its primitive state, with mostly delightful results, sparking the French phenomenon of plein-air (open-air) painting.

Fontainebleau became such a popular destination for artists—both professional and amateur—that the French painter Rousseau successfully lobbied Emperor Napoleon III to designate it as the world’s first nature preserve in 1861.

Kimberly Jones, a curator of the exhibition, explained the artistic appeal of Fontainebleau during the media preview. “Within a single forest you had virtually any landscape motif possible,” Jones said. “It is this incredible range and versatility that drew artists there and fascinated them.”

These aren’t all works of jaw-dropping beauty or virtuosic skill, however. There is a sort of certain sameness to the greens and browns and blues used to depict the natural foliage and sky. But many of these 150-year-old-plus paintings do convey a surprisingly well-preserved vision of the rugged, ancient forest.

Corot’s “Forest of Fontainebleau,” in which a young, raven-hair woman lounges in the grass reading a book alongside a creek, is remarkable for its strength and purity of color.

Rousseau’s “A Clearing in the Forest of Fon-tainebleau” is one of the rare paintings exhibited here that cleans out the dense brush, so to speak, giving us a glimpse at the larger forest through the trees. The cloud-dappled sky illuminates the clearing in the foreground as a wagontrail cuts through the center and beckons us back toward the dense, old-growth forest.

Le Gray is perhaps the best represented photographer in the exhibit, and his images offer a less idealized, but no less beautifully raw, version of the iconic forest. His “Study of Trees and Pathways” reveals remarkable light and shadow among the trees and succeeds in portraying Fountainebleau as an unusual hideaway.

Not all of the paintings celebrate the actual forest. In the last section of the exhibition, some of the pieces tell us about the camraderie that developed among the artists who spent their days traipsing through the trees and recording what they found there.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “The Inn of Mother Anthony” depicts artists eating, drinking and talking at the end of a day spent in the forest. A fluffy white dog sits at their feet as a woman clears their plates. It’s a satisfying image of the artists enjoying some well-deserved rest, relaxation and self-satisfaction for a job very well done.

In the Forest of Fontainebleau: Painters and Photographers from Corot to Monet through June 8 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW. For more information, please call (202) 737-4215or visit

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.