At first, Barbizon does not seem an obvious choice as an artistic center. After all, this picturesque village to the southeast of Paris is more or less made up of a single street. Yet, between 1830 and 1875, over 60 artists flocked to what was then a modest woodcutters’ village and the movement that grew up around them was later to be called the Barbizon school.
Its importance was immense. They were the first group of French artists to take their easels out into the countryside and to paint “sur le motif,” directly from nature. They brought respectability to the lowly genre of non-historical French landscape painting, and as such were precursors of the Impressionist movement. Indeed, the likes of Cézanne, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley also later made trips to Barbizon.
Corot was one of the first artists to visit the village. He made his first studies in the forest of Fontainebleau as early as 1822, and while he cannot be totally identified with the Barbizon school, he returned there often throughout his life. He was also friendly with all of the Barbizon painters – Théodore Rousseau, Millet, Diaz, Troyon, Daumier and, especially, Daubigny, with whom he often traveled and worked from 1852 onwards.
One of the main reasons artists went to Barbizon was that, from 1849, the forest of Fontainebleau was easily accessible from Paris by train. Today, however, the village is strangely isolated. There are no direct public transport links; reaching Barbizon without a car requires a train ride to Melun from the Gare de Lyon and then a 10-minute taxi ride to the village (count around 120F each way).
Approaching the village, one crosses the plain of Chailly, most famously depicted in the works of Millet, such as the “Glaneuses” (1852) and “L’Angelus” (1857-59). The artist settled in Barbizon in 1849 with his wife and nine children and lived there until his death in 1875. Millet became the painter of rural life and of the local laborers. His house is now open to the public as a museum with some engravings and drawings by Millet as well as minor works from the Barbizon school.
The village’s other museum was also the center of its artistic life. The Auberge Ganne, opened around 1824, became temporary home to all the Barbizon artists. One wing, now a private house, is known as “Corot’s house.”
The museum was inaugurated at the end of last year. The ground floor is a faithful reconstruction of the 19th-century inn. It includes the Gannes’ bedroom and the artists’ dining room, each with the original furniture. Examples of the artists’ work are everywhere. They decorated partitions and painted the panels of cupboards.
Upstairs, the wallpaper in the bedrooms has been carefully removed to reveal that the artists used the walls as sketchbooks. They are covered with small landscapes, pictures of hunting dogs, even portraits. Holes in the wall were made by the nails on which the artists would hang their work at the end of the day for each to admire and criticize.
The large dormitory, where the artists slept on camp beds, has been transformed into an art gallery, with paintings of the forest, the plain and animal life by the likes of Diaz, Rousseau and Daubigny. There is also a study of the forest by Corot. Downstairs, an audiovisual about the Barbizon school runs every half hour.
The Auberge Ganne has replaced Rousseau’s house as the village museum; the latter houses the tourist office and temporary exhibitions. Rousseau first came to the forest of Fontainebleau in 1827 and later became the main figure of the Barbizon school. Early on, he stayed at the Auberge Ganne, but later he transformed a barn into his home and studio, where he died in 1867.
The main road, bordered by houses made of stone from the local quarries, has managed to retain much of its character. After visiting the museum, don some walking boots and head to the far end of the village; there one immediately enters the forest of Fontainebleau. From the main road, some of the rock formations for which the forest is renowned are visible. The area is a paradise for ramblers and climbers alike.
How to get there: By car, A6 to Fontainebleau, then N7 and D64 to Barbizon. By train from Gare de Lyon to Melun, then taxi.
Musée Municipal de l’Ecole de Barbizon – Auberge Ganne, 92, Grande Rue, tel: 60 66 22 27. Open Apr 1 to Sept 30, 10am to 12:30pm and 2-6pm Mon and Wed-Fri; 10am to 6pm Sat, Sun & holidays (Oct 1 to March 30, closes at 5pm), 25/13F. Guided tour for groups, 400F.
Maison et Atelier Jean-François Millet, 27, Grande Rue, Wed to Mon 9:30am to 12:30pm and 2-5:30pm, free.