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Peasants and Preservation: The Barbizon School Artists and the Struggle for Fontainebleau Forest

Jean-François Millet, The Shepherdess—large plate, 1862. Etching. Maurice and Esther Leah Ritz Collection, M2004.245. Photo by Efraim Lev-er.

Upon first glance, The Shepherdess by Jean-François Millet seems to represent a purely bucolic scene in rural France. Millet completed the etching in 1862, and in it, we see a woman knitting while her sheep graze in a field in the distance. She wears a cape, a bonnet, and sabots—wooden shoes associated with the lower classes in France. Her face is obscured by the shade of the trees growing behind the boulder where she rests. On her right, a dog keeps watch over the sheep. A sense of purposeful stillness pervades the scene. Despite the tranquility of the image, however, the setting and activities it depicts are closely related to ecological debates that took place in French society between the 1830s and 1870s. One such debate centered on Fontainebleau Forest.

Gustave Le Gray, [Le Dormoir de Lantara. Forêt de Fontainebleau], 1852. Photograph. Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Located approximately forty miles south of Paris, Fontainebleau (pictured here, in a photograph from 1852) boasts a richly varied landscape. It is known for its sand and boulders, in addition to its forest of oak, pine, and beech trees. The land had long been a royal domain, serving as hunting grounds for kings since the tenth century. Beginning in the 1820s, artists such as Théodore Rousseau and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot started to represent the Fontainebleau Forest in their work. These artists later became known as the Barbizon School, named after the main village that sits at the forest’s edge. The forest was among the first places to be connected to Paris by train, in the 1840s. This made it easier for more artists and tourists to travel to the country. Several artists eventually established seasonal studios in Barbizon and other small towns near the forest. Rousseau took up permanent residence there in 1848, and Millet and his family moved there in 1849. 

The members of the Barbizon School made significant changes to the landscape tradition. Previously, artists traveled to Italy in order to study and sketch in an environment associated with antiquity. Their landscapes often included narratives, such as historical events or mythological stories, and they emphasized classical proportions and a high degree of finish in their canvases. The Barbizon School artists, on the other hand, generally remained in France, and they were interested in making works based on careful observations from nature. They broke with established technical conventions, often using looser brushwork and allowing paint textures to remain visible on the surface of their works. If they included figures in their scenes, as Millet did, they were usually peasants or workers.  

Because of the forest’s trees, artists considered Fontainebleau an especially important site of both beauty and living historical memory. In the 1850s and 1860s, the Barbizon School was at the forefront of efforts to protect the forest. Unlike some of today’s ecological movements, which are often motivated by an interest in conserving land for its own sake, the Fontainebleau preservation movement was argued in primarily aesthetic terms. In 1852, Rousseau wrote a letter to the statesman Charles de Morny, an influential minister to Emperor Napoleon III, asking the administration to protect Fontainebleau from what he saw as destructive practices being committed by the forest administration. He made his appeal by citing the location’s importance to artists. 

The debate on this issue continued for the next several years. The preservation campaign finally succeeded when Napoleon III issued a decree on August 13, 1861, that set aside 1,097 hectares of the forest (roughly 6 percent of its total area) as an “artistic reserve.” It was the first land in history to be protected by law, followed by Yellowstone National Park in 1872. In the decree, Napoleon III referenced the aesthetic significance of the site, describing the forest as a “museum of gigantic trees” and mentioning that it was to be conserved for artists, tourists, landscapists, and the curious.

Millet’s scene seems to revel in this successful preservation of the landscape he loved. However, his inclusion of the peasant and the sheep complicates this interpretation—and highlights another topic of debate at the time. Different ideas about the rights to and care of forestland sparked sometimes violent confrontations between the forest administration and peasants. Since the 1820s, forestry agents had been planting new trees around the country, because they believed that deforestation had led to more frequent flooding. As part of this reforestation effort, they attempted to keep peasants from cutting down trees and grazing their sheep in certain areas. Peasants had historically been allowed access to the forests to pursue such activities, but forest agents now saw them as destructive. They tried to limit communal land rights for the sake of preservation.

Barbizon School artists, in contrast, were charmed and inspired by the rituals of country life; some saw peasants as a symbol of a rural past that—much like the forest itself—was in danger of being destroyed by industrialization. (Paris, from which Millet and many other artists had come, was at the center of the 1848 revolution and a cholera outbreak.) Millet and other artists created nostalgic images of peasants that sometimes showed them carrying out their historical land-use rights. In The Shepherdess, for example, the trees behind the woman suggest that she is grazing her flock in a forested area. While forest guards considered this activity harmful to the forest, Millet seems to have perceived it as a component of the rural life he regarded as an integral part of the forest. 

Millet, like Rousseau and other members of the Barbizon School, valued the history and artistic value of the Fontainebleau Forest above all, and they achieved lasting, if controversial, success in preserving it for the future.

Nikki Otten is associate curator of prints and drawings. She plans exhibitions and rotations, manages acquisitions, and researches the collection of works on paper from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century.

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