On​ hot summer days, Parisians escape to the suburb of Fontainebleau. After the Château Royal, the forest is the city’s second monument, or at least that’s the way Théodore Rousseau saw it: a refuge from inflation, pollution, noise and epidemics (in 1849, artists confined themselves there to escape a cholera outbreak), and an inheritance. From the 1830s, Rousseau, Jean-François Millet and others converged every summer in the village of Barbizon on the forest’s northern edge. There they worked on naturalistic depictions of the French countryside, inspired in part by Constable’s exhibition at the Salon in 1824, making no apology for their departure from historical and mythological narratives and from the then dominant preference for Italian landscapes.

‘An Avenue in Isle-Adam Forest’ (1849)

Rousseau travelled around France for many years, painting the landscapes of Auvergne, Normandy, the Jura, the Vendée, the Landes, the Pyrenees and the Berry, before settling in Fontainebleau in 1847. He would walk in the countryside for hours each day, sketching trees, plains, marshes, mossy undergrowth, boulders, dead branches. The humidity of the forests seems to rise from his canvases. Sometimes he worked on a picture for months or even years, returning to the same spot day after day. The current Petit Palais retrospective of his work, The Voice of the Forest (until 7 July), invites us to adopt a similar pace. The selection is small and considered: a sharp contrast to the speedy Impressionists – for whom he helped to pave the way – on display across the Seine at the Musée d’Orsay, in a show celebrating 150 years since their first exhibition. Where the Impressionists have rapidity of touch, industrial focus and accessible pleasures, Rousseau invites contemplative appreciation of nature and wariness of the forces that seek to exploit it.

In 1816, the artist Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes created the Grand Prix de Rome du paysage historique with the aim of rejuvenating historical painting through landscape. It encouraged artists to paint in the open air and Rousseau was hooked. In 1829, however, he withdrew from the competition, disillusioned with the strict genre hierarchy: the judges still favoured ‘histoire’ over ‘paysage’. From 1836 to 1841, his pictures were excluded from the Salon for their refusal to submit to the conventions of the Academy.

Rousseau painted what he called ‘portraits’ of trees, and not just any trees, but oaks and beeches: never Baltic pines, the Russian species introduced during the reign of Louis XVI. In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, the restored monarchs began to exploit the forest to replenish their coffers and favoured northern species for their rapid growth. Artists and writers, including Victor Hugo and George Sand, protested against the pine plantations, objecting, on both political and aesthetic grounds, to what they saw as a deformation of the landscape. Uprooting pine saplings was considered a defence of the forest and its poetic vision: for a time, you could only go to dinner in Fontainebleau if you arrived with a pine sapling in hand. These efforts impressed the court, leading to widespread calls for the Bourbons to listen to the young artists. In 1839, King Louis-Philippe finally relented and banned the felling of the centuries-old oaks in Bas-Bréau – a significant victory for Rousseau and his contemporaries.

The title of the Petit Palais show alludes to Rousseau’s claim, as a romantic pantheist, that he could hear trees speak, and also to his hope that his art might serve as an echo chamber for that voice, as it does in the unfinished painting Massacre of the Innocents, which gives biblical heft to the arboreous victims of logging. Rousseau detested foresters but he also opposed a certain kind of tourism. In 1842, the world’s first signposted footpaths, the ‘blue paths’, were marked out at Fontainebleau. This led Rousseau and his friend Alfred Sensier to write to the duke of Morny, Napoleon III’s minister of the interior, asking that he create a nature reserve in the name of art, ‘beyond the reach of the forest administration, which mismanages it, and beyond the absurdity of the man who exploits it’. In 1853, Napoleon III acceded to their demand, setting aside more than six hundred hectares as ‘sanctuaires de la nature’, and in 1861 Fontainebleau was extended and decreed ‘une réserve artistique’. It was a major influence on the designation of national parks in the US – Americans were among the main collectors of the Barbizon School – beginning with the opening of Yellowstone in 1872.

The exhibition curators praise the harmony that Rousseau creates between the landscape and the beholder, but we often peer into his scenes through leafy and thorny openings. While Millet, who painted rural life, carved welcoming paths into his landscapes, Rousseau, much like John Everett Millais in his late works, creates a buffer zone of tangled branches or impassable swamps. In An Avenue in Isle-Adam Forest (1849), the viewer glimpses an inviting glade framed by the forest’s dark canopy, but broken boughs and bushes bar the way. In The Oak in the Rocks (1860), the untamed branches fill the entire space, which is empty of any human trace – a rare occurrence even in Rousseau’s work.

Rousseau’s landscapes have to be earned. One of the themes of the exhibition is his ecological awareness. Three paintings in the final room, which is titled ‘Rousseau, an ecologist?’, are offered as evidence. Alongside Massacre of the Innocents and its scenes of environmental destruction, two works decentre human figures, making them part of the ecosystem. In The Crooked Tree at the Carrefour de l’Épine (1852), the large, twisted, bare branch of an ancient oak provides shelter for a tiny silhouette, while, in a pastel on paper by Millet, Dead Birch, Carrefour de l’Épine (1866), the figures, carrying bundles, are relegated to the background and barely visible.

Rousseau was one of the first painters to become the subject of an ecocritical monograph, Greg Thomas’s Art and Ecology in 19th-Century France: The Landscapes of Theodore Rousseau (2000). I suspect that the curators’ question mark in the final room isn’t intended to alert us to the anachronism or to question Rousseau’s feeling for nature, but rather to highlight what the art historian Pierre Wat calls ‘the aporia of landscape as an ecological category’. Landscapes are anthropocentric – designated by man and experienced by man – just as Rousseau’s forest was a forest for artists.

Rousseau’s thirteen years of rejection were followed by decades of critical and commercial success. But his vision wasn’t always appreciated in the way he intended. In 1853 he showed a second version of Swamp in the Landes at the Salon and again at the Exposition Universelle two years later. The dark foreground of the painting gives way almost at once to a herd of cattle grazing and drinking from the marsh. The cowherd ambles behind them; in the distance are the foothills of the Pyrenees. This landscape was for centuries uninhabitable but not unfarmable: grazing by livestock allowed the cultivation of some crops, particularly rye. The shepherds of the Landes were known for traversing the wetlands on tchangues, or stilts. But to the right of Rousseau’s painting a transformation is taking place: the land has been drained and a pine plantation established. The trees, slender but flourishing, come all the way to the water’s edge. At the Exposition Universelle, the Martiniquais engineer Jules Chambrelent exhibited a display of pine trees he had planted in the Landes five years earlier. As Kelly Presutti has shown, Napoleon III saw Rousseau’s painting and he saw Chambrelent’s pines. In 1857 he passed a law ending pastoralism in the Landes and bought seven thousand hectares, which were drained and converted into pine plantations. The Landes forest is now the largest man-made woodland in the world.

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