For young spirits in revolt against the status quo, who also understood that art, music, and literature were the only worthwhile pursuit for people who knew anything at all, Paris, and France as a whole, was the place to be for a trio like Will Low, Bob Stevenson, and Bob’s cousin, Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Louis,’ back in the day when their generation had the stage. The people of that venerable nation seemed to have the key to good living where free thinking and condonable action within the law were taken for granted. That made France a magnet for rebellious, creative, artistic types seeking emancipation from stifling conditions elsewhere, usually, wherever home was. For the two Stevensons, Paris was the antithesis of their native city, Edinburgh, Scotland.
“Many old men, reared in the puritanical and hypocritical Edinburgh of the past, could tell you the private reactionary effect of that life of repression and humbug upon a decent genuine man. That you must not think at all, or act for yourself, is to add the very zest of piracy to experiment in life and originality in thought. Where public profession is manifestly a lie and public manners a formal exaggeration, life becomes a chest with a false bottom which opens into a refuge for the kindlier, wiser and more ardent among human beings.”
So said cousin Bob of his hometown in his book about the Spanish painter, Velasquez, in comparison to the latter’s seemingly miraculous independence amid the insufferable atmosphere of “a bigoted and fantastically ceremonious royal court.” Will Low spoke for all the young artists by describing how “with something of the joy of colts let out to pasture, we had embraced the wider horizon, and above all, the untrammeled liberty that was unquestionably accorded to our kind in the pleasant land of France.”
Two days after Will, Bob and Louis had enjoyed their night on the town in the City of Lights that was Paris, the two Stevensons set out for their summer quarters to live, study, and party, surrounded by the enchanting atmosphere of the French countryside. The particular countryside they preferred came with a big centerpiece, the National Forest of Fontainebleau. In days of yore it had been the ‘Royal’ Forest and private game preserve of the French monarchy. About forty miles southeast of Paris, it is one of the most scenic woodland tracts in France. The road through it begins at a village called Barbizon on its northern border and takes the traveler to the south side, emerging into the village of Grez which said RLS, “lies out of the forest, down by the bright (Loing) river. It boasts a mill, an ancient church, a castle and a bridge of many sterlings.”
Each spring a deluge of young artists descended upon this region from their winter quarters in Paris, filling the pensions and riverside hotels. By day they dotted the surrounding fields and woods with their easels and at night they gathered in groups to party and talk shop. Collectively they would one day be known as the painters of Grez Sur-Loing, the vanguard of the new and controversial Impressionist style of picture-making.
Few of these painters at Grez were French. They were a mongrel bunch from a variety of nationalities as far away as Australia, America, Norway, Sweden, England, Ireland, Scotland and eventually Japan. What they all had in common was the influence of their renowned predecessors, the Realist Painters who had been active in the area between 1825 and 1860. Notables in that group included Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, and Jean-Francois Millet who just happened to die a few months before Robert Louis Stevenson and cousin Bob arrived at Barbizon in July, 1875.
Will Low had remained behind in Paris to finish a painting for his first offering at the Salon. It didn’t go well and he wrote about his regret that he wasn’t there to see “the first impression which the smiling plains and shady woods made on Stevenson; who for several years to come was to find in Fontainebleau and the adjoining village of Barbizon and Grez, fields for work and play…to which, in pleasant memory, he often reverted, until the end came in the South Seas.”
“Close into the edge of the forest…sits a certain small and very quiet village. There is but one street and that, not long ago, was a green lane, where the cattle browsed between the door steps. As you go up this street drawing ever nearer the beginning of the wood, you will arrive at last before an inn where artists lodge.”
Forest Notes, RLS
Siron’s Inn of Barbizon with its well-stocked beer and wine cellar, large courtyard and long dining tables, was headquarters that summer to a clique of young painters and one writer. The arrival of the latter had enabled the group to employ a new appellation, namely, “the two Stevensons.”
At twenty-four, Louis was already two years into the second half of his mortal existence. With law school out of the way and cash on hand to spend irresponsibly within a supportive group of peers, RLS was in his element. It is not surprising that he had found space to write about it in a piece called Fontainebleau.
“This purely artistic society is excellent for the young artist…at that stage of education, for the most part, where a man is too much occupied with style to be aware of the necessity for any matter. To work grossly at the trade to forget sentiment, to think of his material and nothing else, is, for a while at least, the king’s highway of progress… For art is, first of all and last of all, a trade. The love of words and not a desire to publish new discoveries, the love of form and not a novel reading of historical events mark the vocation of the writer and the painter.”
In the summer of 1875, Robert Louis Stevenson crashed through the invisible boundary between apprentice and craftsman. Like the spent stage of a rocket so was deliberate imitation of other writers discarded as the wizard in RLS mastered the tools of his trade.
He said: “The world is so full of a number of things. I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”
To look at the variety and abundance of topics and subjects and stories and poetry, even fables and prayers comprising Stevenson’s literary output, gives the impression that, for him everything in the Cosmos was potential subject matter for his ceaselessly active pen. During that golden first summer with Cousin Bob in France, it was the forest that captivated him–not any forest, but the Forest of Fontainebleau:
“Strange indeed is the attraction of the forest for the minds of men…it is not so much its beauty that the forest makes its claim upon men’s hearts, as that subtle something, that quality of the air, that emanation from the old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit … it is the great moral spa; this forest without a fountain is itself the great fountain of Juventus. It’s the best place in the world to bring an old sorrow that had been a long while your friend and enemy. There is no place where the young are more gladly conscious of their youth, or the old better contented with their age.”
“These woods have rung to the horns of all the kings of France, from Philip Augustus downward. They have seen Saint Louis exercise the dogs he brought with him from Egypt; Francis I go hunting with ten thousand horses in his train; and Peter of Russia following his first stag…Here, booted and spurred, and with all his dogs about him Napoleon met the pope beside a woodland cross. Here, on his way to Elba not so long after, he kissed the eagle of the Old Guard, and spoke words of passionate farewell to his soldiers …”
“And the wonderful clear, pure air…sets the heart tinkling to a tune–or, rather, to an old tune; for you remember in your boyhood something akin to this spirit of adventure, this thirst for exploration, that now takes you masterfully by the hand, plunges you into many a deep grove, and drags you over many a stony crest. It is as if the whole wood were full of friendly voices calling you farther in, and you turn from one side to another … and, out of emulation with the painter, get ready your own palette, and lay out the colour for a woodland scene in words.”
It was from Siron’s Inn that Stevenson departed in the mornings and returned to in the evenings from his daily forest forays. This old bohemian haunt has survived but its name has changed as well as its clientele. In June of 1984, it made news during the Fontainebleau Summit, La Reunion du Conseil European, with ten European leaders attending. In the same hall where the artists of yesteryear wined and dined, these modern-day dignitaries wolfed down plates of food that the newspapers called “le denier quit a degele l’Europe–the meal that thawed Europe.”
After the dinner, a photograph was taken of the attendees at the entrance to the inn, by then long known as the Hotellerie du Bas-Breau. Seen above the heads of Mitterand of France and Kohl of Germany and the rest of their gang was a simple plaque on the wall with a brief message:
“R. LOUIS STEVENSON WHILE AT THIS HOTEL WROTE FOREST NOTES.”