Forest of Fontainebleau

Coordinates: 48°24′45″N 02°39′09″E / 48.41250°N 2.65250°E / 48.41250; 2.65250
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Old topographic map of the Forest of Fontainebleau, 1895

The forest of Fontainebleau (French: Forêt de Fontainebleau, or Forêt de Bière, meaning "forest of heather") is a mixed deciduous forest lying sixty kilometres (37 mi) southeast of Paris, France. It is located primarily in the arrondissement of Fontainebleau in the southwestern part of the department of Seine-et-Marne. Most of it also lies in the canton of Fontainebleau, although parts of it extend into adjoining cantons, and even as far west as the town of Milly-la-Forêt in the neighboring department, Essonne. Several communes lie within the forest, notably the towns of Fontainebleau and Avon. The forest has an area of 250 km2 (97 sq mi).[1]


Lattice-like etchings from a cave near Boissy-aux-Cailles, Seine-et-Marne

Forty thousand years ago, nomadic populations settled around the forest. Various traces of their presence have been discovered:[2] carved stone tools, bones of such animals as bears, elephants, rhinos, giant stags. More than 2,000 caves with rock carvings are scattered across the forest. They are attributed to all periods between the Upper Paleolithic (around 12000 BC) and modern times. However, the majority of the carvings are from the Mesolithic (between 9000 and 5500 BC).[3] They often take the form of geometric etchings (lattices), though some are figurative.

The fourth century BC saw the arrival of Celt and Ligurian tribes. The Celtes settled the region in the fifth century BC. A Celtic necropolis was discovered in Cannes-Écluse, along with arms and auroch horns. Near Bouray (Seine-et-Oise), a bust of a Celtic god with stag legs was unearthed, while in Bossy-aux-Cailles, a Celtic tintinnabulum was discovered.[4]:89

A royal domain[edit]

Around the year 1000, the human occupation of the forest consisted of a series of enclaves controlled by petty lords and wealthy landowners.

In 1067, Philippe I acquired the county of Gâtinais, which gave the crown control over the entire territory of the current forest. For the kings of France, the forest had several uses, including hunting and forestry, but also a military interest, as Fontainebleau was a strategic location on the road to Sens and Burgundy. In 1137, Louis VI began construction of a hunting castle consisting of a dungeon, moat and chapel. It is during this period that the first use of the word 'Fontainebleau' appears.[4]:34

Fontainebleau and Avon in the 18th century, in Trudaine's Atlas (National Archives)

In 1400, Charles VI initiated the first reform of forest policy; that is, he ordered the complete closure of the forest area for several months in order to verify the rights and uses of each user of the forest. This exceptional procedure was repeated many times under the Ancien Regime.

The castle was rebuilt from 1527 by François I, as a base from which to hunt "the red and black beasts" which abounded in the forest. At the time, the forest covered only 13,365 hectares, but the kings of France extended it through acquisitions and forfeitures. Also under François I, the office of Grand Forestier was created. He was responsible for officers and horse guards, each having the supervision and management of a canton of the forest. It was at this time, during the 16th century, that the administration responsible for managing the forest took shape. It retained this responsibility until the French Revolution.

At the time of Louis XIV, less than 20% of the forest area was wooded. Jean-Baptiste Colbert launched a reform from June to September 1664 as well as a tree-planting campaign.[5] In 1716, following the severe winter of the year 1709, 6,000 hectares were planted with deciduous trees, but this turned out to be an almost total failure. In 1750, the 90 km perimeter of the forest was delimited by 1050 boundary markers, some of which are still visible today. In 1786, Scots pines were introduced. After the Revolution, following numerous illegal cuts and the proliferation of game due to lack of hunting, Napoleon I reformed the forestry administration and that of the castle in 1807.

In 1830, the planting of another 6,000 hectares of pine provoked the anger of artists who came to seek inspiration in the forest.

Creation of the world's first nature reserve[edit]

Jules Le Coeur and his dogs in the forest of Fontainebleau, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1866
Painters at Rest, Fontainebleau, Xavier Leprince, c. 1824

The Forest of Fontainebleau is famous worldwide for having inspired 19th-century artists, including painters of the Barbizon School and the Impressionists. The Barbizon painters, led by Théodore Rousseau, militated against the planting of softwoods which had been carried out at a pace of several hundred hectares per year since 1830. They objected on the grounds that the plantings distorted the landscapes. The artists also opposed the planned regeneration cuts in old forests in 1837 and founded the Society of Friends of the Forest of Fontainebleau to protect it.[5]

In 1839, Claude-François Denecourt published his first forest guide and laid out the first paths in 1842. From 1849, the railway arrived in Fontainebleau, which enabled Parisians to visit Fontainebleau on day trips.[4]:65 This relatively easy access helped to create public support for the protection of the forest.

At the request of the painters of the Barbizon School, hardwood cuts were suspended in certain cantons appreciated by artists. In 1853, "nature sanctuaries" covering over 624 hectares of old forests and rocky areas (Bas Bréau, Cuvier Châtillon, Franchard, Apremont, La Solle, Mont Chauvet) were withdrawn from wood harvesting. For the first time in France, concern for “the protection of nature” became one of the objectives of forest management.[5] By the imperial decree of April 13, 1861, the “artistic reserve” was increased to 1,094 hectares and finally to 1,693 hectares from 1892 to 1904. The director general of forests, Henri Faré, explained that the setting aside of 1,600 hectares was tantamount to losing an income of 300,000 gold francs.[6] However, the Forest of Fontainebleau thus became the first nature reserve in the world.


The elephant rock, near the village of Larchant
The mushroom rock, near the village of Noisy-sur-École

Thirty five million years ago, the area now occupied the Fontainebleau forest was a sea that deposited sediments of fine, white sand about fifty meters thick. The sands were deposited during the Oligocene age. This sand is one of the purest in the world and is used for glassware (Murano in Venice) and for optical fiber.[7]

The sand later formed the large banks of sandstone boulders – consisting of grains of quartz cemented by a silica gel – that characterise the current landscape of the forest. The boulders often have surprising shapes reminiscent of animals or objects and they are highly coveted by bouldering enthusiasts.

The rocks occupy an area of nearly 4,000 hectares and form long banks of almost parallel boulders oriented East South-East, West North-West, and separated by open valleys at both ends.

The forest floor contains up to 98% sand and is therefore very permeable. As a result, nowhere in the forest, except on the eastern slope between Veneux-Nadon and Samois-sur-Seine, are any sources of water available. The ponds come from the capture of rainwater in the depressions of the rocky plateaus, except in the vicinity of the pond at Les Evées where clay dominates.

Fauna and flora[edit]

The most common trees in the forest are: oak (44%), Scots pine (40%), and European beech (10%). Three thousand species of mushrooms have been discovered. The forest is also home to approximately seven thousand animal species, five thousand of which are insects.



View of the Gorges de Franchard in the Forest of Fontainebleau

Fictional and media depictions[edit]

The Forest of Fontainebleau: Morning, Théodore Rousseau, c. 1850


Jean de Paris[edit]

The hills of Jean de Paris are part of the forest "known for its stark plateaus and rough terrain". It was a popular theme for painters and photographers of the Barbizon School.[8][9][10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Fontainebleau". Paris Digest. 2018. Retrieved 2018-11-28.
  2. ^ Bailloud, Gérard (1961). "Un habitat du Bronze moyen en forêt de Fontainebleau : Marion des Roches". Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française. 58 (1): 99–102. doi:10.3406/bspf.1961.3734.
  3. ^ "L'Art Rupestre". Retrieved 2022-06-24.
  4. ^ a b c Loiseau, Jean (2005). Le Massif de Fontainebleau (in French) (5th ed.). Paris: Vigot. ISBN 2-7114-1745-X.
  5. ^ a b c "Histoire". Retrieved 2022-06-24.
  6. ^ Badré, Louis (1983). Histoire de la forêt française (in French). Paris: Arthaud. pp. 312, 168–169.
  7. ^ "Blanche et Chamottée: Le sable de Fontainebleau... A quoi ça sert..." Blanche et Chamottée. Retrieved 2022-06-24.
  8. ^ Eugène Cuvelier, "Jean de Paris, Fontainebleau" [1]
  9. ^ Narcisse Virgilio Díaz, "Hills of Jean-de-Paris in the forest of Fontainebleau", in Karl Baedeker, Paris and Environs: With Routes from London to Paris, p. 174
  10. ^ Théodore Rousseau, "Autumn at St. Jean de Paris, Forest of Fontainebleau, 1846"

External links[edit]

48°24′45″N 02°39′09″E / 48.41250°N 2.65250°E / 48.41250; 2.65250