Normandy and Impressionism go hand in hand. This was where the movement started, attracting the group of 19th century painters who created this revolution. They rejected the academic approach of the past where artists worked in their studios whether they were painting landscapes or portraits. The new artists worked outdoors, capturing light and its changing facets, depicting ordinary people at their daily tasks, rural scenes and small towns and villages.
Le Havre – Where Impressionism in Normandy was born
Impressionism began when Claude Monet painted a view of Le Havre, which during the mid 19th century was a chic seaside resort much beloved by smart Parisians who came here by train. Monet’s painting Impression, Soleil Levant was exhibited at the second Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused) in Paris in 1874. A critic took the word Impressionism as a condemnation of the new style, and the movement was born.
But Monet was just one of the group of painters whose work was to revolutionise the world’s perception of art. Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas and Eugène Boudin and others were all as important in the development of the style.
Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant is on display at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, (not as you might expect in the famous Musée d’Orsay). In Normandy, take in the Musée Malraux in Le Havre which has an outstanding collection of works, particularly by Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas, Courbet and Corot.
Normandy and Impressionism along the Coast
Across the estuary of the Seine from Le Havre, you’ll come to the charming little port of Honfleur, birthplace of Eugène Boudin. Once a safe harbour used to ship goods from Rouen to England, today the slate-covered houses surround the harbour where yachts have replaced rather than goods vessels or fishing boats. Gustave Courbet, Eugène Boudin, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir, Claude Monet and Johan Jongkind, the artists who formed the Honfleur school, painted the changing light and colours of the Seine, becoming known as the ‘Estuary Painters’.
They stayed at La Ferme Saint Siméon, a 17th-century former coaching inn, where the redoubtable Mère Toutain provided her ‘family’ of artists and writers with lodging, meals, cider and calvados. It’s still a hotel, though today a rather posher Relais & Châteaux hotel and restaurant with formal gardens, spa and helicopter landing pad. Those with artistic leanings can book Room no. 22 (Monet’s favourite), or no.19 which was Corot’s studio. Or just take lunch and enjoy the fabulous views overlooking the harbour. (0033 2 3181 7800.
For a taste of the past, visit the Musée Eugene-Boudin for pictures by Boudin and his contemporaries, as well as furniture and clothes, photographs from 1880 to 1920 and tourist posters advertising Normandy from 1880 to 1950. It’s one of those museums I love; full of objects that bring the region alive.
Explore the Côte Fleurie
South of Honfleur you come to chic Trouville-sur-Mer, France’s oldest seaside resort where the writers Flaubert and Proust and the artists Monet and Boudin came to enjoy the resort and its casino and record its glories.
Cross the river Touques to its younger rival Deauville which today offers polo and racing, photo exhibitions and beach sports. In the 19th century the town was quieter, but it’s recognisable today from the Impressionist images.
The often neglected seaside town of Cabourg is quite delightful and quite grand. A mid 19th-century resort, it was another of the places beloved by Marcel Proust. Go back to the past of Monet and have a drink at the Grand Hotel that he painted in all its glory.
The Alabaster Coast north of Honfleur
The coast road takes you along the white cliffs and rolling farmland to Etretat and that famous cliff formation, the Porte d’Aval. The best view is from the top of the Cap d’Amont, a tall cliff where the little Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Garde commands the sea view.
Drive north to Yport, less well known but with another beautiful seascape. On a clear, sunlit day when the light bounces off the sea, you might be inspired to imitate the Impressionists and set up a canvas; you’ll certainly whip out your mobile for an Instagram opportunity.
Most of today’s visitors only visit Fécamp for its Benedictine distillery but there’s plenty more to see plus traces of William the Conqueror. In the 19th century it was still a charming resort and a centre for the cod fishing industry where Monet, Edouard Manet and his sister-in-law Berthe Morisot painted the harbour, beaches and streets.
The Impressionist paintings of Dieppe might be less well known, but there are wonderful images to discover in the Chateau Museum. There’s Boudin’s well dressed party on a windy beach; Gauguin’s intrepid sea bathers; Pissarro’s overcrowded port scene with its steam boats and grey skies; Monet’s colour washes of sunsets and sunrises, and shown here, Turner’s evocative Dieppe harbour. Monet preferred nearby and quieter Pourville and Varengeville sur Mer.
Take the path up to the castle, past the Memorial Park which remembers the Canadian raid on Dieppe. First thing to note is the fabulous view, then go into the Dieppe Castle Museum for the Impressionist paintings, including those by Sickert whose series of the church of Saint-Jacques de Dieppe show the church at different times of the day and different seasons.
One of the great Impressionist cities, the capital of Normandy and the Seine Valley provided some of the greatest sites. Monet painted Rouen Cathedral no less than 30 times between 1892 and 1894 when he rented a temporary studio opposite the 12th century building.
Follow the Impressionists along the towpaths of the Seine, over the Boieldieu bridge and along the Rue de l’Epicerie frequented by Gauguin, Pissarro and Alfred Sisley, and Turner.
But do try to visit the Museum of Fine Arts which has the second largest Impressionist collection in France after the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
Giverny and Monet
Monet’s house and garden at Giverny, near Vernon, are the most popular Impressionist destination in France so plan your visit carefully. It’s a stunning place with house and garden, the churchyard where he is buried, the Musée des Impressionnismes, and the Ancien Hôtel Baudy where the painters ate.
The next Impressionist Festival takes place in 2020 with over 450 events throughout the region. It takes place between 3 April and 6 September. Over 1.5 million visitors are expected over the festival.