Saturday, May 17, 2014

France 2014: Barbizon

The first stop of our France trip was the little commune called Barbizon, which is just under an hour south-east of Paris near the forest of Fontainebleau.  Between 1830-1870, it was a gathering point and an inspiration for many landscape and wildlife painters such as Jean-Francois Millet, Théodore, Rousseau, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, founders of the Barbizon School art movement.  Their paintings focused on realistic depictions of natural surroundings, dogs, sheep, cattle and other livestock, as well as the common worker such as the farmer, shepherd, or seamstress.
This area is full of tributes to the Barbizon School collective, including streets and alleyways named after, and plaques on buildings commemorating various artists.  Scattered throughout the town centre are beautiful mosaics that replicate some of the artists' more famous works.  In particular, we recognized the recreation of "Les Glaneuses" (The Gleaners) by J.F.Millet, whose original painting resides in the Musée d'Orsay.  The work features three peasant women gleaning or scavenging for stray grains of wheat after a field had been officially harvested.  The subject matter was unusual for its time because of its sympathetic depiction of the lower class.

The studio workshops of Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet still stand today and have been turned into museums displaying their works and personal artifacts.  The Barbizon School Museum is the place to go to get a true feel of what it was like back in the days of the Barbizon School, since it resides in the former boarding house where this group of artists hung out together.

The first floor of the museum contains furnished semi-intact rooms that represent the gathering hall, dining room, kitchen and store. The artists left their marks throughout these rooms, not only with officially framed works of art, but also by painting on walls, doors, window panels and even furniture. 

Everywhere you turn, lush, vibrant paintings appear on all types of surfaces.  Some can be attributed to specific artists but many are unsigned and anonymous. Of particular interest was a buffet in the dining area, whose doors were painted using trompe-l'oeil effects to make it appear as if real, 3-dimensional objects were sitting on the shelves. The ceramic pot and salt shakers that acted as the models for this painting are on display on top of the buffet.

Each step of the staircase leading up to the second floor bedroom is decorated with the name of one of the members of the Barbizon school, who congregated at this establishment. Some of the rooms on this level have been converted into an art gallery displaying their paintings. But of much more interest were the un-restored rooms that still contain the artists' whimsical doodles on the walls.  Might this be an example of early graffiti?

Beyond the influence of this art movement, Barbizon contains many contemporary art galleries full of paintings and sculptures.  There are also many enormous villas scattered throughout, some of them with impressive sculpture gardens in their own right.

This is a quaint little town to wander through, with very old buildings and walls made of stone. At the heart of the town, there is a war memorial and a chapel.  Down the main street can be found many shops, restaurants, art galleries and a few hotels.

We stayed at La Clé D'Or, which was a delightful hotel that was beautifully decorated.  The piece of art hanging in our room had a distinctive Roy Lichtenstein feel to it.  Our room overlooked a fabulous garden and sitting area that would have been lovely to lounge in, had the weather been a bit warmer.

We had a wonderful lunch in the outdoor garden patio of La Crêperie Barjole. I had a delicious vegetarian crepe with tomato, mushroom, leek and cheese, while Rich had a sausage and onion crepe.  A large group of French diners were sitting at a table next to us when we arrived.  Although we had a leisurely lunch ourselves, they were still there not only when we left, but when we passed by again an hour later after touring the town.  The French really do know how to slow down and enjoy themselves!

We did quite a bit on our first day despite being terribly jet-lagged, but we were determined to stay awake as long as possible to get over it.  Luckily the town was intriguing and stimulating enough to keep our interest without taxing our brains by requiring too much concentration.  We never knew until we researched for this trip that there were so many interesting little towns so close to Paris.  We look forward on our way back to hiking through the Fontainebleau forest painters circuit to see more art either by or in tribute to the Barbizon School group.

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