Interested in a different day trip from Paris? Try visiting some scenic old art colonies in France. There is so much more to see besides Giverny. And these off-the-beaten-track places are much less crowded.
Venturing south of Paris you will find the old art colonies of the Fountainbleu Forest, including Barbizon, Grez-sur-Loing, Moret-sur-Loing, Montigny-sur-Loing and Thomery. Here they are, mapped out on Google Maps. These villages make for a wonderful weekend or day trip from Paris. All you need is a good map, but for really easy travel, I prefer a rental car with GPS. (My own GPS travel tip: use the postal code of the city to which you’re traveling.) It is possible to visit all of these colonies in one day, but if you prefer not to rush and to perhaps leave some time to sketch or visit the nearby Chateau de Fountainbleu, I would set aside a whole weekend.
On a recent visit with Barbara Redmond, fellow artist and founder of A Woman’s Paris, I began in Grez-sur-Loing (postal code 77880) at the southern edge of Fountainbleu.
Grez became a popular summer travel destination for American artists in Paris after a train station and new hotel were built In 1860. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot‘s painting View of the Loing At Grez (1850-60) may have worked like a Grez travel poster, inducing many art students to come and try to paint it themselves. Word about Grez circulated through the Academie Julian in Paris as well as Carolus-Duran’s studio.
Athough Grez was gray and quiet the day we visited, it was once hopping with artists and writers, both male and female. Its notable visitors included Robert Louis Stevenson, his cousin, painter Robert Allen Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott’s little sister Abigail May Alcott (an artist like Amy in Little Women), American painters Kenyon Cox, John Singer Sargent, Theodore Robinson, Robert Vonnoh and Will Low, as well as a mother-daughter team of painters from California, Fanny and Nellie Osbourne. In fact, it was at Grez that Fanny Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson would meet and fall in love, although Fanny was ten years older and technically still married to her first husband at the time. (A hint of the bohemian pleasures of a nineteenth century art colony!)
These artists enjoyed the picturesque setting of the village as well as the open spaces nearby. The older French artists such as Corot, Millet and Rousseau had settled in nearby Barbizon a few decades earlier, but there was a new generation of artists looking for their own scenes and style. As Robert Allen Stevenson explained:
At Barbizon it was especially difficult to get away from the old men who had made it their own, and yet do anything like art. Forest interior composes with difficulty otherwise than as Rousseau, Diaz and Courbet imagined it. . . . Shut in, full of forms, lit in one way, deprived of sky of space of air of the effect of large simple planes, it was no fitting nursery for the new school of painters (“Grez” The Magazine of Art, 1894).
It wasn’t just lofty artistic motives that brought this generation of artists to Grez. It was also a place for youthful exhuberance and bohemian camaraderie. The artists enjoyed the casual hospitality of two inns in Grez: Hotel Chevillon and Pension Laurent. Hotel Chevillon was the place of much bohemian merriment, including singing and dancing in the hotel dining room as well as a masquerade ball in sheets and togas. The hotel guests often took canoe rides on the river together, playing such games as tip the canoe and shoot the chute. For a somewhat more reserved and respectable environment, the women would often stay at Pension Laurent just down the street.
Both hotels are still standing in downtown Grez. The Hotel Chevillon is now owned by Foundation Grez-sur-Loing, a Scandinanvian art organization that offers grants to visiting artists, authors, composers and scientists. According to their website, tours may be arranged with advance notice.
Grez remains an artistic community today. On the day we visited, we met a French painter near the ruins of the old Tour de Ganne. She was clipping dried hydrangeas from the churchyard to use at her own art exhibition later that afternoon. She handed us a flyer and invited us to stop by.
Follow along on my tour of other French art colonies in future posts. Coming soon: a visit to Rosa Bonheur’s Atelier in Thomery, France.
Sources and Recommended Reads:
Grez Days: Robert Vonnoh in France (Essay and Catalogue by May Brawley Hill for Berry-Hill Galleries 1987)
The Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson by Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez (Gutenberg Project ebook, 2008)
May Alcott: A Memoir by Caroline Ticknor (1928), available at the Library of Congress Internet Archive
A Chronicle of Friendships 1873-1900 by Will H. Low (1908), available at Open Library