Normandy is the cradle of Impressionism. Le Havre was the setting, and the inspiration, for Claude Monet’s famous 1872 painting: Impression, soleil levant (Impression, sunrise). Normandy was, for most artists, their birthplace and home. Its proximity to Paris together with the burgeoning number of fashionable seaside resorts like Dieppe, Honfleur, Le Havre, Deauville or Trouville along its coast meant that artists came to the region by train and stayed, producing an artistic legacy which would be hard to rival anywhere.
Today, you can walk in their footsteps, admiring the same timeless landscapes as well as many original works. Find your own inspiration in the verdant landscapes, charming sleepy villages, vibrant colours and ethereal light that captured the hearts of Claude Monet, Sisley, Turner and many others.
The Honfleur artist Eugène Boudin was a forerunner of Impressionism, and had a profound influence on Claude Monet. ‘If I am a painter, I owe it to Eugène Boudin” Monet would say. For over half a century, the Côte de Grâce, the Caux county, Deauville, Trouville, Le Havre and Rouen were the inspiration for numerous canvasses.
Leader of the movement, and father of modern painting, Claude Monet is perhaps one of the best known Impressionists and certainly a major character in Normandy’s artistic heritage. His house and gardens in Giverny are one of the region’s major tourist sites, much visited for their beauty and their water lilies, as well as for their importance to Monet’s artistic inspiration. Normandy was at the heart of his creation, from the paintings of Rouen’s cathedral to the famous depictions of the sunrise in Le Havre and the cliffs of Etretat, as well as the beach and port in Fécamp. Monet met Eugène Boudin and Jongkind in Honfleur, he mixed with artists such as Courbet, Corot, Sisley, Pissarro and Renoir and brought them to Honfleur to paint.
Breaking away from the more formalised and classical themes of the early part of the 19th century, the Impressionist painters preferred to paint outdoors, in natural light, and to concentrate on landscapes, towns and scenes of daily life. The river Seine also provided much inspiration to these painters whose new technique enabled them to depict the sparkling colours of moving water and the reflection of clouds and sky. Further north, at the tip of Manche County, the painter Millet produced several works which depicted the local church or scenes of peasants working in the fields.
While Monet’s work adorns galleries and collections all over the world, a remarkable quantity of Impressionist works is to be seen in galleries throughout Normandy. Eugène Boudin, Raoul Dufy and Marcel Duchamp are Norman by birth, and numerous other painters fell under the charm of the region, stayed there and even settle there. Living in close proximity to the inexhaustible source of inspiration provided by the region, landscapes and scenes of daily life were immortalized on canvas not only by Claude Monet, but also by William Turner, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and others.
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A charming fishing port with traditional Norman architecture, Honfleur looks much as it did when Monet was a frequent visitor. Honfleur-born Eugène Boudin was a strong influence on Claude Monet. Monet first met Boudin in Honfleur, and would subsequently drag the whole band of renegade artists – Courbet, Corot, Sisley, Pissarro and Renoir – to the Saint Simeon farm. From this promontory, they endlessly painted the colors of the Seine bay and surrounding area, earning them the title of “Estuary Painters”. Today, a number of these paintings are exhibited at the Eugène Boudin Museum.
Côte d’Albâtre (Alabaster Coast): Dieppe, Fécamp, Yport & Etretat
This coastline of chalk cliffs and green pastures stretches from Le Havre eastward along the coast to Fécamp. Special mention goes to Etretat and its stunning cliff formations, including the famous chalk needle. Monet interpreted many of the scenes along this coast, leaving us a canvas trail to follow, as did painters such as Boudin, Pissarro, Sickert, Morisot and Noel.
The Impressionists, attracted by the unique, ever-changing light play in the estuary, attempted to capture its colours on canvas. A chic 19th century seaside resort for Parisians, Le Havre was also the summer home of Monet who frequently stayed, and worked, at his aunt’s house in Sainte-Adresse. Today, the Malraux Museum boasts a collection of Impressionist works rivalling Rouen’s Fine Arts Museum. These include paintings by Boudin, Courbet, Corot, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir, as well as some Post-Impressionist collections.
Côte Fleurie (Flowered Coast): Deauville, Trouville, Cabourg & Houlgate
The coast between Trouville and Cabourg is a succession of 19th century seaside resorts popularised by the bourgeois trend for sea bathing. Scenes from the trendy seaside resorts of Deauville and Trouville were painted by a number of Impressionists, including The Beach at Trouville (1893) by Eugène Boudin. Deauville’s sandy beach dotted with brightly colored beach umbrellas, its white-washed bath houses and traditional boardwalk confer a timeless feel to this familiar scene. Monet also painted the famous seaside resort of Cabourg and its Grand Hotel, reflecting the varying moods of the sea and sky.
As the little Vernon-Gasny train chugged across the tranquil Norman countryside, a French artist and his partner Alice noticed a delightful town from their spot at the window. Charmed by the sight, the man later brought Alice and their children here to live. The artist was of course none other than Claude Monet and the village was Giverny. This quaint artists’ retreat on the Seine became Monet’s home in 1883 and by 1887, the spot had transformed into something of an artists’ colony.
Giverny’s reputation as a haven of creativity was soon secured. Monet’s famous Water Lilies, painted in the garden he lovingly created at his Giverny home, have long been synonymous with the Impressionist movement. No art lover’s trip to Normandy would be complete without a visit to the Fondation Monet‘s home and gardens. Giverny also boasts the Musée des Impressionnismes entirely dedicated to the Impressionist movement. The American Art Museum in Giverny, reflecting American inspiration, is also well worth a visit.
The Notre Dame Cathedral had its moment of glory when Monet consecrated some thirty canvasses to its façade, painted at various times of day to capture the changes in luminosity, one of his best-loved series. Standing beside the Seine you can see the Saint-Sever district on the left bank, once the heart of Rouen’s docklands immortalized by Camille Pissarro in 1896. Both Monet and Pissarro succumbed to the charms of the half-timbered houses and narrow streets of this medieval city. Works are exhibited in the Rouen Fine Arts Museum.
This itinerary is compliments of the Normandy Regional Tourist Board.
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