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<<TITLE> Caroline Ford - Landscape and Environment in French Historical and Geographical Thought: New Directions - French Historical Studies 24:1 French Historical Studies 24.1 (2001) 125-134

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Review Essay

Landscape and Environment in French Historical and
Geographical Thought: New Directions

Caroline Ford

Histoire de la géographie française de 1870 á nos jours, by Paul Claval (Paris, 1998)

Pour une histoire de l’environnement: Travaux du programme interdisciplinaire de recherche sur l’environnement, edited by Corinne Beck and Robert Delort (Paris, 1993)

Les Français dans leur environnement, edited by Neboit-Guilbot and Lucette Davy (Paris, 1996)

Luminous Debris: Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc, by Gustaf Sobin (Berkeley, Calif., 1999)

Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel, and other historians associated with the Annales school pioneered new geographical approaches to the study of history and laid the groundwork for the development of a rich tradition of regional and rural history in France. It is therefore striking to observe the absence, until recently, of the concept of “environmental history” in French historical studies. Moreover, while the study of “wilderness” has been at the center of the field of environmental history in North America, which has become one of the liveliest areas of interdisciplinary research, geographical and historical approaches to the study of the French landscape and environment have tended to focus on the inhabited “milieu,” on cultivated or agricultural landscapes.1 The reasons for this divergence in approaches to landscape, [End Page 125] environment, and history are embedded in different national histories, in how the fields of geography and history came to be differentiated as disciplines in France, in the differing meanings with which landscape has been invested, and in the relative importance that environmental and ecological movements have had in France and North America. As the books under review suggest, however, a growing number of historians, geographers, and writers on France have come to embrace “environmental history” and to explore it in new, distinct, and innovative ways.

Historical interest in landscape, geography, and the environment in France is by no means new. Writers and travelers did much to encourage a fascination with sublime and distant landscapes between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, at home as well as abroad. Montesquieu made landscape and climate pivotal analytical categories in his analysis of political society in Esprit des lois, published in 1748. The development of cartography, the gathering of statistics by state bureaucracies, and the work of amateur naturalists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to an early and broad public interest in landscape and geography in France, which culminated in the founding of the Society of Geography in 1821.2

Toward the mid-nineteenth century, interest in French geography dovetailed with a new concern for landscape preservation, which was inspired less by ecological motivations than by aesthetic and nationalist ones. These concerns were voiced by a group of painters associated with the Barbizon school and French landscape painting—Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, and Théodore Rousseau, among others. Although the commercial market for landscape painting in France first centered on the work of Dutch artists, this new generation of painters began to paint rural landscapes surrounding Paris: Fontainebleau, Saint-Cloud, and Sèvres.3 By 1867, one critic, writing about the work of these painters, argued that “through landscape, art becomes national . . . it takes possession of France, of the ground, of the air, of the sky, of the French landscape. This land that has borne us, the [End Page 126] air that we breathe, this harmonious and sweet whole that constitutes the face of the mother country, we carry it in our soul.”4 More often than not, the landscapes favored by painters and buyers were not wild and unpeopled but, rather, featured belltowers, cultivated fields, peasants at work, well-managed forests, and villages. Their specificity was precisely that of offering an undisassociated mix of nature and culture.

Aesthetic and nationalist concerns continued to dominate the movement for landscape preservation launched by the painters of the Barbizon school and resulted in the first national legislation passed to protect a natural site, the royal forest of Fontainebleau, in 1861. It found expression in...


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pp. 125-134
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Archived 2004
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