Normandy, the Cradle of French Impressionism

By Patricia Woeber Modified: August 12, 2013 at 9:39 am •  Published: August 12, 2013
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This summer and fall the region of Normandy in France, known as the cradle of Impressionism, is celebrating these paintings and artists in the "Normandie Impressionnisme Festival." The beaches, cliffs, hills, pastures and inviting woods here provided the artists with inspiration and subject matter, and indeed the movement got its name from Claude Monet's "Impression, Sunrise," painted in Le Havre in 1872.


    Throughout the area the Impressionists' artistic heritage is being celebrated with special events and superb exhibitions in the museums of Le Havre, Rouen, Caen, Giverny and other cities, towns and villages. These sites range from the well-known, such as Monet's home in Giverny, where he painted his beloved water lilies, to the unexpected, the Dior Museum in Granville with a special exhibition on the influence of Impressionism on fashion designer Christian Dior.
    During the festival, 200 paintings of industrial ports and pleasure harbors are on view in "Pissarro and the Ports -- Rouen, Dieppe, Le Havre" in Le Havre. From 1883 to 1903 Pissarro produced this series of paintings in a variety of weather conditions. It's worth a trip to visit the Musee d'art Moderne Andre Malraux in Le Havre, which has the largest collection of Impressionist works after the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.
    This movement all began during the late 1800s when the Paris Salon refused the work of several young artists because they ignored the rules established by the Salon concerning the merits of art. Among these painters were Camille Pissarro, Monet, Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and the Post-Impressionists -- Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Georges-Pierre Seurat, all of whom refused to depict the accepted styles of realistically painted myths, legends, and religious and historic subjects.
    Instead the group had moved outside into nature and developed a style that shook the aesthetics of the status quo to its core. They painted Normandy's landscapes and seascapes and focused on the fleeting moods of light and reflections on the River Seine and along the coasts, with ordinary people sailing and sunning. They applied paint in free brushstrokes, dynamic lines and an obvious brush placement and mix of colors on the canvas. Pointillism was nothing more than dots -- how outrageous, the establishment thought.
    Some pioneers of the new movement, such as Nicolas Poussin, Eugene Delacroix and Gustave Courbet, who already lived or worked in Normandy, had experimented with these innovative ideas, and they influenced the younger painters -- in particular with the fleeting impressions of the weather and the seasons on nature.
    The mentors of the new movement included Eugene Boudin, who was born in Honfleur and lived in Le Havre. The Boudin Museum is in Honfleur, whose tiny port is said to be one of the most beautiful in France. Boudin also spent time with Monet on Trouville's beach and encouraged Monet's freedom with his brushstrokes so that he achieved the feeling of the dazzling midday sun and the brisk sea breeze. Monet often said, "If I am a painter, I owe it to Eugene Boudin."
    Monet loved water scenes from the years he lived in Le Havre on the estuary of the Seine River and in later in the village of Argenteuil on the Seine near Paris. Afterward, when he lived in Giverny, his home not far from Paris, he painted several large series, some on mammoth canvases, of the water lilies, where he achieved an abstraction beyond Impressionism. The Orangerie in Paris has devoted whole galleries to several of these.
    Another pioneer was Jean-Francois Millet, who was born in Gruchy, a hamlet on the Normandy coast west of Cherbourg. His subjects were rural and urban landscapes, and he expertly rendered peasants to give them a transcendent nobility, which deeply influenced Pissarro, Monet and van Gogh.
    The Impressionists eagerly absorbed the new ideas. Enlivened by their camaraderie, they depicted Normandy's colorful ports and harbors, dramatic rocky coast and fashionable new beach resorts such as Dieppe, Trouville and Deauville. These places overflowed with the impressions of the moment on land and sea -- the changing effects of sun and shade, the yachts and boats, swimmers and gaily clothed women carrying frilly parasols.
    Normandy's scenes grew as popular subjects with the Impressionists and were shown in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Paul Signac, too, found inspiration along Normandy's coasts and similar to Monet, Signac never tired of these scenes. His work, like that of the others, featured the romanticism of travel and escape.
    At this time, tourism was facilitated by the expansion of the railroad system. In Manoir du Tourp, a museum in the village of Omonville-la-Rogue on the Cotentin peninsula, is an exhibition of posters from 1855 that advertised tourism to the coasts on the railway. Sea-bath trains brought people to Granville and resorts that were suddenly in reach.
    Water reflections also symbolized the birth of Impressionism as the artists thrived on these nuances. They studied the facets in Cezanne's work that showed form and depth of field. They appreciated Degas' ability to depict movement and a festive atmosphere, such as in his painting "The Ball," where people danced and chandeliers glittered above.
    The Impressionists' vision has endured and reached a mythology of existence -- far more than the artists could ever have imagined. And while there is much more to see in Normandy, viewing the very scenes that inspired a whole generation of artists adds to the joys of travel there -- and gives sustenance to the spirit.
WHEN YOU GO
    Normandy is a great place to walk in the footsteps of artists at any time of year. The exhibitions and festivals continue until the end of September. The events include theater, dance, music and lectures: www.normandie-impressionniste.eu/node/30.
    In the Musee des Beaux-Arts of Rouen, the exhibition "Dazzling Reflections" contains 100 Impressionist masterpieces of water scenes and seascapes: www.muma-lehavre.fr/en or www.rouentourisme.com/Default.aspx?tabid=2508&language=en-us.
    The Musee des Beaux-Arts in Caen titles its exhibition "A Summer at the Water's Edge." The themes of water are portrayed in the masterpieces of Monet, Cezanne, Pissarro, Renoir and others whose work focuses on people at leisure on the beach and sailing: www.caen-tourisme.fr/en.
    Several elegant and charming places to stay give the visitor the feel of being in the company of these artists.
    Chateau de Canisy in St. Lo is full of history and antiques and has its own lake and a magnificent setting: www.chateaudecanisy.com/normandy.
    Hotel L'Erguillere is on the coast above Port Racine, the smallest port in France, located west of Cherbourg. It overlooks the sea and is set among pastures and wild bays: www.hotel-lerguillere.com.
    Along Normandy's Cotentin coast near Granville, charming bed-and-breakfast Villa Saint Jean in Saint Jean Le Thomas, on the Mont-Saint-Michel Bay, offers rooms for $90 per night, breakfast included: www.villasaintjean.com.
    Le Clos Postel is a beautiful old property with lovely suites. It is in an ancient village on an estuary in Regneville sur Mer. Prices begin at $118 per night, with breakfast included: www.clospostel.com.
    For services and expertise for a la carte and group trips in Paris and France: www.francetravelspot.com and www.normandy-tourism.fr.
    For general information about France: www.franceguide.com
   
    Patricia Woeber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
(c)COPYRIGHT 2013 CREATORS.COM



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