There are times when I hate Paris, as is only natural after spending seven years here. This is, after all, a modern city, as gray and noisy, hurried and dirty as the rest of them. What the Parisians do in such cases is flee to the countryside, half of them to their country homes, where they spend weekends and those exquisitely long French summer vacations. But my wife and I are not among that crowd. So we drive south of Paris for about 40 minutes, around the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau to Barbizon.

For roughly half a century, starting in 1825, this village was the nexus for a group of painters who specialized in landscapes and rural themes, and who naturally became known as the Barbizon School. The town began to see their potential in 1875, when an enterprising hotelier put on Barbizon's first exhibit of painting. By then, however, the greatest of the group -- Theodore Rousseau and Jean-Francois Millet -- were dead. They and their colleagues left a collective portrait of a place that was something like une fraiche et brave fille du pays (a pretty local girl), quite beautiful under certain lights and moods, to be taken as she is. Despite the inevitable kitschy galleries that have succeeded the real artists, that is pretty much what Barbizon remains.

Like, say, Stockbridge in the Berkshires, Barbizon is a living village self-consciously built around its history -- where the old houses are deliberately preserved, the old style is artfully respected. Hereabouts that means thick stone walls to keep out the damp from the woods, and peaked tile roofs for the winter snows and rains. In the pleasantly acrid tang of the air and the agitated tide of bird songs, seasonally punctuated by the percussive rain of dropping acorns, you feel the surrounding depth of the forest. It is from these woods that the village draws its identity and reason, even now.

I come here mainly to walk, and after four years I keep finding new places to walk in. This forest is far bigger than the city of Paris, and crisscrossed with miles of well-kept hiking trails. The eastern edge of the village stops where the forest begins -- a favorite spot for the less adventurous painters of the Barbizon School -- which nicely relieves you of wondering how to find the trail.

I usually start by visiting Elephant Rock, to admire its stone trunk and the rest of the boulders in its copse, just south of the village. It is longer but still pleasant work to set out on the Grande Randonnee (GR) 11 trail, which passes through the Gorges d'Apremont, a star-shaped cluster of bare cliffs above a valley, on its way south to Auxerre in the Bourgogne. I won't try to improve on Gustave Flaubert's description of the gorge in "The Sentimental Education" -- from the part where Frederic, a wealthy and useless young man, and the courtesan who for just this moment loves him, Rosanette, spend a few paradisiacal days driving through the forest, until a revolution breaks out in Paris:

"The trail zigzagged between stocky pines, under the angular profiles of the cliffs; all this part of the forest has an enclosed, rather wild, and meditative sense about it. One thinks of the hermits, companions of the great stags, carrying a cross of iron ... who received with paternal smiles the good kings of France, on their knees before their cave. A resinous odor filled the hot air, the roots at the surface of the soil crisscrossed like veins."

Yes -- the gorge seems alive, to have a mind of its own, though not the kind of mind that thinks in sentences. For a moment, looking out over the plain, my mind became like the place, a little enclosed, wild and meditative. Flaubert, that maker of exquisite sentences, realized that we need such scenes; not merely to satisfy some hunger for the picturesque, but to forget what or who we are, like a king on his knees before a cave.

I know that this isn't really a savage forest. Everywhere I see the mark of human hands. The underbrush has been cut back alongside most trails. Blazes of paint mark the main paths, and there are signposts at the spots where one crosses another. You could walk all day here without a compass.

Still, it's an awfully big forest, with the occasional viper, and deer, and other wild things. When I dropped by the Paris office of the Federation Francaise de la Randonnee Pedestre, the national hikers' foundation, to pick up some of their superb trail maps last fall, I found them in mourning over two friends who had been shot to death, probably by poachers (the crime is unsolved), while walking in the southern reaches of the GR11. With all this in mind, I try to take my pleasure from alert observation, instead of the stupefied enchantment I have seen in some visitors to these woods.

It has been a good year for walking, of unusually dry weather. Last December, when my mother came to visit and we all went to Barbizon for a weekend, there was not a hint of the usual icy rain that wears Parisians to a chilled splinter of themselves, and only a few pools of mud in the low spots of the forest floor. The woods were denuded, yet retained the scent of fall -- an eerily beautiful effect.

But the blessing is mixed. The weirdly warm winter was followed by a crushingly hot summer, an orageux atmosphere, as the French say -- loaded with menace, suffocatingly dense, waiting to thunder and flash and pour.

In Paris the weather induced a sort of stunned pessimism. But in Barbizon, we could escape the heat by walking into the woods early in the morning, staying there in the deep shade for an hour or two, eating lunch on some shaded terrace in the village, then coming back to our hotel for a shower and siesta. Only in late afternoon, having slept through the worst of the day, did we need or wish to rise, dress, take a few turns around the garden and venture out for a meal.

And then an early evening stroll -- perhaps to the knoll just inside the forest to the east of the village, where a troop of boulders stands in a clearing at the hilltop, under the last fading light from the sky. A passage from Robert Louis Stevenson's fine story, "The Treasure of Franchard" -- that's a glade off the county road to Fontainebleau, a superb row of piney, boulder-strewn ravines -- still expresses the texture of these summer nights in Barbizon:

"The sun was very low when they set forth again; the shadows of the forest trees extended across the broad white road that led them home; the penetrating odour of the evening wood had already arisen, like a cloud of incense, from that broad field of tree-tops; and even in the streets of the town, where the air had been baked all day between white walls, it came in whiffs and pulses like a distant music."

One of the reasons Barbizon matters to me is that I love Stevenson's books, and he came to live here in 1875, at age 25. Perhaps it is his real father's voice we hear in Stevenson's brilliant "Weir of Hermiston," when Lord Hermiston answers his son's request to go abroad: "I'll never trust ye so near the French, you that's so Frenchifeed {sic}."

Hermiston's boy obeyed, but RLS went off to the woods to eke out a poor living from reviews and sketches, and to pull himself together, as he hinted in "Forest Notes," drawn from his Barbizon days: "It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of the air, that emanation from the trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit."

I found this quote in "The Pocket R.L.S.," a dusty, palm-sized 1903 anthology hidden on a shelf at the quirky Shakespeare and Company shop in Paris. The London publishers delicately spared their Victorian readers (the Queen died in 1901) the rest of the passage: "You forget all your scruples and live a while in peace and freedom, and for the moment only. For here, all is absent that can stimulate to moral feeling."

It was in this place, in this mood, that he met a woman named Fanny Osbourne. She was 10 years older than he, an American divorcee with two children. Stevenson's father would not hear of her. But the young man loved her, and when she left France and went to the United States in 1879, he went after her -- third-class.

Stevenson recounts that terrible voyage in "The Amateur Emigrant," which makes stupefying reading after the bucolic pages of his early travelogues; it left him a shambles. And yet it freed him -- brought him a wife, and children whom he loved like his own, who became his collaborators and first, most avid public. Two years after he married Fanny, his father and he were reconciled, he wrote "Treasure Island," and his fame and fortune were made.

Stevenson died in 1894, at the age of 44. His short but happy life's adventure began on the Grande Rue of Barbizon -- in the Hotel Bas-Breau, which has since been upgraded from a beginning author's cheap digs to a four-star palace. A plaque on the hotel front proclaims that Stevenson wrote "Forest Notes" in it, a fact the locals will recite without prompting. No one seems to find it ironic that you can't find a copy of "Forest Notes" anywhere in Barbizon, in English or French translation.

I like to think that Les Alouettes, where I always stay, is not unlike the Bas-Breau in Stevenson's day. After a dozen visits over four years, going there feels like visiting relatives who give you the run of the house. The service is cheerful, but no one comes around to ask if Monsieur or Madame might wish for something. This year I was obliged to scrounge for soap and towels on a Sunday, when the staff is off duty, but I didn't really mind, because I know where the linen closets are (second floor landing and corridor, in case you ever need to know).

I like the fact that at Les Alouettes I am granted a courteous indifference until I pose a request. And the hotel sets an excellent dinner -- always an ample, fresh red meat, or a perfectly done fish. This is the precise moral and material economy of a fine French two-star hotel.

The place was built in the last century for the Seailles brothers, a painter and a philosopher. You can feel a slight but inescapable familial wackiness in the way they divided the space, between the enormous high-ceilinged dining room and the little chambers at the very top of the stairs, where they put their studios. As artists, these guys must have been great eaters.

I have wondered if Stevenson was lampooning the Seailleses in "The Treasure of Franchard": A forest innkeeper named Madame Tentaillon always has the wrong thing to say at the right moment, and her boarders are painters. According to Stevenson's hero, Dr. Desprez, painters are suspect types: "A man of imagination is never moral." When his wife protests, "But you always say ... that these lads display no imagination whatever," he retorts, "They displayed imagination, and of a very fantastic order, too, when they embraced their beggarly profession."

And I wonder if someone once said something like that to Stevenson when he lived around here, and thought himself pretty clever for saying it. I know this: Even the best of the Barbizon painters, for no fault but painting what they saw and felt, lived not much better than beggars. But I like to think that they were happy to do the work they were doing -- because it makes you glad to see it, when you seek it out.

"In Old Barbizon," the memoirs of painter Georges Gassies (1829-1919), is long out of print, but extracts have been collected by the little Municipal Museum of the School of Barbizon and published in a booklet whose cover shows Theodore Rousseau's snug cottage beside a rich yellow wheat field, from a painting by Gassies. Like Stevenson, Gassies was sick when he first came to Barbizon in 1852, at the urging of his friend Amedee Servin: "It's in the most admirable spot, you smoke pipes under the great oaks and you paint rocks of every color, you'll see how pretty it is!"

The village wasn't much: A single boarding house, a badly paved street, houses made of slate with -- their one pretty feature -- roofs of aged straw that "had taken an admirable color, very fine grays, warmed here and there by the tones of certain parasitic plants," notes Gassies. The residents were still "real peasants," who worked the fields in warm weather, and the forest in cold. Among them, the painters in the village "could without fear of being deranged work peacefully, and be lodged and fed cheaply."

There are no works by the major Barbizon painters on view in the Municipal Museum -- no Millets, Corots, Daubignys or Diazes, and only a few drawings by Rousseau. But I found Gassies' oil, "The Moreau Rocks," compelling. A muddy road runs through the center foreground under a cloudy sky, then veers off by a clump of trees, while to one side a slouching farmer and two tired horses stand by a sledge, after what must have been hard hauling. No attempt has been made to smooth away the roughness of the road, the rocks, the trees and men and beasts. The frank vision retains its freshness; and the abrupt, visible brushstrokes tell you that impressionism is soon to follow.

I wanted more of this, and found it back in Paris on the Musee d'Orsay's ground floor, in a breathtaking line of rooms where the painters of the Barbizon School are lined up beside their contemporaries. The setup is chronological, so you can follow the painters as they evolve. For the Barbizon artists, it works brilliantly.

Look: In Rousseau's "Avenue of the Forest of L'Isle-Adam" (1849), the sky, and an overarching canopy of dense foliage above a clearing, dominate the ground. As in fellow Barbizonian Jules Dupre's "The Pool Under the Oaks" (1850), where a pond in the foreground serves only to emphasize the heavens, what counts is the glorious world above, of which this earth is literally a poor reflection. You can't yet see why Rousseau's contemporaries deeply admired his originality.

But in "The Passage," made in Barbizon in 1855, something dramatically different enters Rousseau's frame. The foreground takes over; the sky is luminous only at the horizon, where it touches the earth. The painting is conceived around two big trees -- and this is the important thing -- each of a different shape and green. They have no heroic qualities, but have simply been rendered as individuals. In all these points, Rousseau violates the academic "idealism" of his time.

Rousseau once said of the forest, "I heard the voices of the trees, the surprises of their movements, their varieties of form." He meant, in part, that he painted the countryside on the spot, instead of in his studio -- at the time a radical procedure, which helped set the Barbizon painters apart. But he paid heavily for listening to the earth before the sky. Rousseau was denied entry to official competitions, and ignored by collectors until after his death.

So was Jean-Francois Millet. I thought I knew Millet's "Angelus," the Barbizon School's most celebrated work, only too well -- because doctored reproductions of it hang on every wall and window in the village. A cute image, it seemed, of a happy couple giving thanks for their harvest, in a rosy, bug-free world. But when I saw the original at Orsay, I was shocked: At the end of a gray day two peasants pray with bent heads, leaning slightly against a wind, in a dark potato field. The painting tells you that for all their faith and best efforts, these two could someday -- maybe soon -- starve.

Millet's artistic journey begins with "The Return of the Flock" (1846), in which even the sheep's rumps are manicured like the back end of a Paris poodle, and the shepherds are fat, rosy cherubs.

"The Repose of the Haymakers" (1849) looks like another man's work. An exhausted woman in worn clothes drinks greedily from a gourd; a hag on the ground holds out her hand to get it back. In only three years, Millet's imagery has shifted from pastoral rhetoric to a closely observed rural proletariat.

But there is far more to his stuff than crude class analysis. Millet gives you people defined by their work in all sorts of ways -- contained by it, or in secret revolt against it, or placidly distant from the doing of it -- through techniques closer to Dutch landscape painting than to the Italian Renaissance style that dominated French art of his time. Look at "The Knitter" (1856). Its quiet, isolated peasant girl has a certain sad concentration, a thoroughly adult inwardness, as she sits over her handwork.

You may have felt this way while doing dishes. Labels deceive: Beneath the "realism" of these works is a spiritual quest, driven by a pained need. Far in the background of "The Angelus," one sees the spire of a church, but the outline is awfully indistinct, too blurry for comfort. The same isolation threatens in Rousseau's "The Old Resting Place of Bas Brau" (1867), where the sky is shut out from above a forest pool where cows drink. The standing waters you saw in his work two decades earlier are no longer God's mirror; the light is there only to see by, not to illuminate.

Yet the scene is gorgeous, filled with mystery and a strange, inchoate love; animals stare at each other, a cow rubs against a tree. The same mystery illuminates -- but from within, not without -- the perfect garden of Millet's "The Springtime," completed two years before his death. There can be no mistake: These were not broken, failed artists; theirs was not a sad, ugly world.

True, as Stevenson said, in these works all is absent that could stimulate moral feeling. Yet all is present that a feeling person could live by -- freedom and courage to see things as they are, in their beauty or sorrow. These artists found a world to love, not because it reflected an ideal, but in and of itself, because it is real; and the rich reality of it, for all its sometime pain, goes far beyond whatever one could imagine.

At least, I like to think that the Barbizon artists had such an object and reward for their labors -- because in the refined nonchalance of the place, the self-containment of the woods, and the works they left, I have felt it too. There is bus service to Barbizon from Paris and the nearby city of Fontainebleau. And it's possible to walk over from Fontainebleau -- about 12 miles, hilly near the end -- in a little over half a day. For more information, contact the French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020, (212) 757-1125. Mark Hunter is finishing a book on the cultural politics of France in the 1980s, "Jack Lang: The Little Prince of Paris."

French artist Theodore Rousseau's house in Barbizon.