Houston Community News >> Exhibition Coming to Museum of Fine Arts July 13 through October 19, 2008

4/16/2008 Houston— Inspired by the possibilities of painting in nature, rather than in the studio, artists traveled to the rugged Forest of Fontainebleau near Paris from the early 1820s to the mid-1870s forging innovations in art that would resonate for generations to follow. There, among the rural villages and the vast and varied wilderness, they laid the groundwork for Impressionism, influenced the development of landscape photography, and raised early advocacy for nature conservancy. In the Forest of Fontainebleau: Painters and Photographers from Corot to Monet opens July 13, 2008 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, following its spring presentation at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The exhibition of 96 works will be on view through October 19 in the museum’s Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main Street.

Organized by the National Gallery of Art in association with the MFAH, the show is the first U.S. exhibition to trace the dual evolution of landscape painting and photography at Fontainebleau. It features multiple works by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Claude Monet, the artists who represent the ends of the experimental spectrum at Fontainebleau, and also highlights works by Jean-François Millet and Théodore Rousseau, who were among the most diligent students of the forest and eventually made it their permanent home. Other featured artists include Frédéric Bazille, Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley. Among the nine photographers represented are such pioneers of the field as Gustave Le Gray, Eugène Cuvelier, and Charles Famin. In addition to the paintings and photographs, there are five important pastels by Millet. The exhibition curators are Kimberly Jones, associate curator of French paintings at NGA, and Helga Aurisch, associate curator of European Art, MFAH, in collaboration with Sarah Kennel, assistant curator of photographs, NGA.

“This exhibition re-examines the impact made by the artists’ colony that thrived for nearly half a century in the Forest of Fontainebleau,” said Peter C. Marzio, MFAH director. “The convergence of extraordinary talent there led to entirely news ways of thinking about and creating art, and a newfound respect for the beauty of nature. The museum is pleased to have been an organizer of this exhibition and to bring this important show to Houston.”

“In the Forest of Fontainebleau celebrates a crucial, fertile period in art history,” said Aurisch. “Although the Impressionists are often credited with the innovation of painting outdoors directly in front of the motif, this exhibition wants to set the record straight by documenting the achievements of the earlier group of painters, who passed on their hard-earned experience to the young painters of Monet’s generation.”

The Forest
The Forest of Fontainebleau is located about 35 miles southeast of Paris. At about 50,000 acres, it is not only France’s largest forest, but its most topographically diverse with dramatic stands of centuries-old oak trees, rocky plateaus and gorges, and desolate, arid spaces. Corot was among the first artists to begin making regular visits to the forest in the early 1820s. Others soon joined him in experimenting with open-air painting and the challenge of capturing light, shadow, weather, and seasons in this “natural studio.” Those years quietly marked the beginning of a revolution in landscape painting in France that would spread throughout Europe and the United States.

By the 1830s, an informal artists’ colony was established in Barbizon, one of several villages situated along the perimeter of the forest, favored because it had the best accommodations. The artists who stayed at the inns there and embraced plein-air painting gave rise to the art movement known as the Barbizon School. Among the other villages first frequented by artists were Chailly and Marlotte. All offered easy access into the forest, but most artists didn’t venture too far into the wilderness because of the supplies they had to transport on their backs: typically, an umbrella, a folding easel, stool, paint boxes, and a canvas. (The exhibition includes a display of painting and photographic equipment.)

Photographers began making pilgrimages to Fontainebleau in the 1840s when the introduction of the paper negative process made it possible to travel without heavy equipment. They were working side-by-side with painters as early as 1849, contributing to the camaraderie and exchange of ideas. During this period, France surpassed Italy as the pre-eminent center for plein-air painting because of the activity at Fontainebleau, and landscape photography became an art.

As more artists began to show their works from Fontainebleau at the Paris Salons, the popularity of the forest grew as a tourist destination, fueled by an enterprising Frenchman named Claude-François Denecourt and the opening of a direct train line from Paris to the forest in 1849. Denecourt wrote guidebooks based on his own romanticized history of the forest and eventually mapped more than 186 miles of walking and carriage trails, single-handedly shaping the typical 19th-century visitor’s view of the forest.

The growing throngs of visitors angered the artists by interfering with their work. The artists were also deeply concerned about the increased deforestation, fearing the destruction of their “outdoor studio.” In 1852, Rousseau petitioned Emperor Napoleon III, on behalf of all artists, to save this forest, which had remained virtually untouched for centuries thanks to its designation as a royal hunting domain. In 1861, Napoleon took the unprecedented step of decreeing part of the forest a nature preserve, eleven years before Yellowstone became the first American national park.

The forest’s attraction for artists began to decline in the 1870s, but the artists working there then were already carrying out the experiments in painting outdoors that would lead to another revolution in art: Impressionism.

The Exhibition
The exhibition will be installed in five sections, each devoted to an aspect of the forest and its role in the development of naturalistic landscape painting and landscape photography: Discovery of the Forest; Trees and Rocks; Nature and Observation; Fontainebleau on a Grand Scale; and Village Life. More than 56 private and institutional lenders contributed works to the show, including the MFAH. The museum’s Great Oaks of the Vieux Bas-Bréau (1864) by Rousseau, Gustave Courbet’s Gust of Wind (1865), and two photographs by Le Gray, Tree, Forest of Fontainebleau (c. 1856) and Le Pavé de Chailly (1852) are among the highlights.

• Discovery of the Forest
Corot had been to the forest before his 1825 trip to Italy where he practiced painting outdoors. He returned to France with a new appreciation for the wonders of the forest and continued to work there for five decades. The exhibition includes seven paintings by Corot ranging from 1822’s Study of a Tree Trunk in the Forest of Fontainebleau to 1872’s Woodcutters in a Forest Valley. Le Gray was among the first photographers to visit the forest, creating salted paper prints from paper negatives in the fall of 1849. The exhibition also includes seven works by Le Gray that demonstrate his painterly achievement in capturing the light, textures, and atmosphere of the forest.

• Trees and Rocks
The two great subjects of the forest for 19th-century artists were its magnificent trees and its unlikely rock formations. Augustin Enfantin’s charming work An Artist Painting in the Forest of Fontainebleau (1825) depicts the painters’ initial delight and fascination with the gigantic boulders while Cuvelier’s photograph Franchard (1863) shows a lone figure atop a massive stack of boulders known as one of the most desolate places in the forest. Painters and photographers were sometimes captivated by similar scenes. Monet’s The Bodmer Oak, Fontainebleau Forest (1865) and Cuvelier’s Beech Tree Near the Bodmer Oak (early 1860s) each focus on a particular tree in a dense stand of trees.

• Nature and Observation
Artists who made regular trips to forest, and those who lived there, like Rousseau, were obsessed with capturing its many moods exposed in different seasons, in different weather, at different times of the day. Examples include Rousseau’s red-toned Sunset over the Sands of Jean de Paris (1864), De la Peña’s foreboding The Storm (1871), and Cuvelier’s Pathway in the Forest of Fontainebleau in the Snow (early 1860s).

• Fontainebleau on a Grand Scale
Because artists had to carry their supplies into the forest, they often worked on portable-size canvases. However, the forest also served as an inspiration for large-scale works completed in the studio after studies done outdoors. Courbet’s monumental Gust of Wind is one example. At more than seven-feet-wide, the painting is a fantasy scene combining elements from several sketches the artist made in the forest.

• Village Life
The daily life of peasants who lived near the forest provided a rich source of themes for artists. Millet was particularly taken with scenes of rural labor—sheepherding, planting and harvesting, and finding time to rest. In his pastels, such as The Sower (1865-1866) and in his paintings, such as The Potato Harvest (1854-1857), he renders the peasants with a quiet dignity. Similarly, Auguste Giraudon respectfully documented people at work in a series of photographs from the 1870s, including Two Young Peasant Women in the Hay.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 224-page catalogue of the same name. Published by the National Gallery of Art in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, the catalogue is edited by Jones with essays by Aurisch, Kennel, and Simon Kelly and includes 179 color illustrations. It will be available at the MFAH Shops, 713-639-7360.

Tour schedule
The National Gallery of Art, March 2 through June 8, 2008
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, July 13 through October 19, 2008

Organizer and Sponsorship
This exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Generous funding is provided by The Albert and Margaret Alkek Foundation Exhibition Fund; The National Endowment for the Arts; and The Levant Foundation.

Education programs for this exhibition receive generous funding from the Texan-French Alliance for the Arts and its presenting partner Suez Energy North America.

Hours and Admission
The Audrey Jones Beck Building is at 5601 Main Street. Hours are Tuesday and
Wednesday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.–7 p.m.; and Sunday, 12:15–7 p.m. The museum is closed on Monday, except for holidays. Admission to this exhibition is included with general admission to the museum. General admission is $7 for adults and $3.50 for children 6-18, students, and senior adults (65+); admission is free for children 5 and under. Admission is free on Thursday, courtesy of Shell Oil Company Foundation. Admission is free on Saturday and Sunday for children 18 and under with a Houston Public Library Power Card or any other library card.

MFAH Parking
The museum’s parking garage is in the MFAH Visitors Center, located at 5600 Fannin Street at Binz Street (entrance on Binz). Free parking is available in two lots on Main Street, at Bissonnet and at Oakdale.