The forest of Fontainebleau – Louveciennes – Pontoise –
Auvers-sur-Oise – Vétheuil – Giverny
Auvers-sur-Oise – Vétheuil – Giverny
The forest of Fontainebleau, Île-de-France region
At the dawn of their artistic career, the Impressionists set their hearts on the vast forest around the castle and the town of Fontainebleau, located fifty kilometres southeast of Paris.
This is not to say that they were pioneers in these places – from the time of Louis XV, artists had been exploring the royal hunting lands and out-of-town recreation areas in search of plots. In the era of Romanticism, when landscape painting was established as a separate genre, those areas were often visited by "forest" painters in burlap robes and wide-brimmed hats, armed with easels, umbrellas and backpacks full of paints and brushes.
By the 1840–50s, a group of artists had settled in the village of Barbizon, later calling themselves "the Barbizon school of painters."
And in the spring of 1863, young Claude Monet, Frédéric Bazille and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who became friends at a Paris studio, visited those places for the first time. And they were really young: compare the work of Théodore Rousseau and the "early" Claude Monet. He was still a realist! At times, the company was joined by Alfred Sisley – an Englishman by birth and an Impressionist by the view of life, as well as by Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne, who were friends with the painters from the Barbizon school.
...Nearby villages – at first Chailly-en-Bière, and later Marlotte – became a favorite safe harbor where the friends, attracted by the bucolic beauty of the region, willingly returned for several years. Moreover, life in the village was much cheaper than in the capital: few beginning artists could afford renting a workshop in Paris.
Auguste Renoir. Jules Le Coeur in the Forest of Fontainebleau
In a mysterious way, the artists, who were in their early 20s, managed to combine bohemian parties, antics and romantic relationships with methodical hours-long plein-air work.
It is believed that it was the views of the village of Barbizon and its outskirts (along with Manet's painting of the same name) that inspired Monet to create the huge canvas Luncheon on the Grass, which was later cut into pieces.
L'Événement, and this was by no means an accident – it was in this edition that Émile Zola led a campaign in support of the new painting. Claude Monet sits facing the viewer, while artist Jules Le Coeur is reaching for some tobacco for a roll-up (note that there is still no single opinion among art historians as of who is depicted at the table!) The maid is clearing away the dishes, and in the background, one can see the fussing hostess. The walls of the tavern are painted in a coarsely playful manner by the artists who were often provided with food and board there.
In the foreground, one can see everyone's favourite pet, the carefree poodle Toto. Having got under the wheels out of negligence, the dog lost one leg. Renoir recalled how he tried to build a wooden prosthesis instead, but Toto could not adapt to it, having learned to do without one leg.
Since 1868, Monet and Renoir hadn't returned to Fontainebleau, permanently captivated by the beauty of flowing river water. At that time, the main focus of the Impressionists' life was the outskirts of Paris, where they could live, almost merging with nature and, at the same time, not separating from the cultural processes of the French capital.
We recommend that you shouldn't just drive past the places, loved by the “forest brotherhood of painters”! The village of Marlotte, housing the Impressionists' memories, has now merged with the neighbouring settlement and is called the "the Bourron-Marlotte commune." And it’s absolutely impossible to walk past the town of Barbizon itself!
By the way, these narrow streets and walls of The Palace of Fontainebleau from the time of Louis XIII became decorations, used by film director Jean Renoir, the son of the famous Auguste, while shooting one of his films.
Photo of the famous hotel Auberge Ganne
In the 19th century, the entire village of Barbizon consisted of four dozen houses located along the railroad tracks, with a single inn in the conventional "centre" of the village. Today, the town can boast four quite comfortable hotels, and the oldest one – Auberge Ganne, often visited by the artists, houses a museum introducing visitors to their daily routine and work.
Photos from the official website of the museum: visitors are looking at the works by Théodore Rousseau, Camille Corot and other artists
Photo of the monument to Jean-François Millet and Théodore Rousseau
It is worth visiting Théodore Rousseau's house-museum, as well as seeing a private collection in Jean-François Millet's workshop. Permanent exhibitions are small, but these places are famous for interesting exhibitions "on the occasion." They also offer a useful self-guided walking tour of Barbizon, taking the so-called "Artists' path," which also goes through a part of the forest of Fontainebleau with its centuries-old oaks and picturesque thickets.
In Barbizon, the walls of ordinary village houses are decorated with original mosaics and graffiti, reflecting the local colour. One can see here details of the artists' most famous works! In general, a trip to this region has not only informative, but also practical significance: both French and foreign tourists come here to select unique interior design items. However, they keep complaining that there are more cafes than galleries in Barbizon – what a crisis! But the views are still amazing.
Photowalk through Barbizon
More practical information is available on the official website of the Seine-et-Marne department.
Louveciennes, Île-de-France region
Renoir's parents moved into this town, twenty miles from Paris, located not far from a noisy paradise on the Seine Islands, in 1869. Monet, already burdened with a family, rented a house nearby, in the village of Saint-Michel near Bougival. The young artists were really desperate for money. They often lacked finances not only for paint, but also for food. When visiting Monet, Renoir often brought with him bread that left after lunch at his parent's house. So the friends literally lived on bread and water: providing their stomachs with the most modest food, they "fed their eyes" with huge river floods, absorbing the range of their reflections and highlights. However, the hardship of extreme poverty only strengthened their friendship. Claude and Auguste talked a lot, argued, and painted together – of course, when they had money for paints. It was then, when walking along the Seine, the companions found "The Frog Pond", which they would later paint many times.
In 1868-1870, Louveciennes also became home to Camille Pissarro, who already was an accomplished artist who had formed his artistic style under the influence of the Barbizon school of painters. An authentic philosopher, Pissarro was unique in his open-mindedness. Communication with young painters made him largely reconsider his artistic goals.
Overwhelmed by the desire to catch the nuances and shades of snow-covered landscapes, Alfred Sisley often joined Pissarro in his winter plein-air sessions in Louveciennes. In order to warm their frozen hands, “brothers in brushes” would make a fire. However, far from every Impressionist shared this self-sacrificing craving for winter romance.
"Even if you endure cold well, why paint snow, this curse of nature?" asked Auguste Renoir, 'the artist of summer'.
Today, a little more than 7 thousand people live in Louveciennes. Local attractions include the 17th century aqueduct, built to provide water for the château de Marly and the Gardens of Versailles from the Seine river. Of course, the Impressionists couldn't ignore this grand building.
Renoir's parents bought the house number 23 on Voisins street. For some time, Renoir himself lived at 9 place Ernest Dreux, where there is a commemorative sign on the wall of the present property. Not far from here is another memorable place, laden with sinister stories – the estate granted by Louis XV to Jeanne du Barry, his official mistress. The canopy of high patronage did not save Madame du Barry from the guillotine... Since then, the ensemble of the manor has undergone multiple reconstructions, but look – it hasn't changed much outwardly.
Contemporary photo - commons.wikimedia.org
Pontoise and Auvers-sur-Oise, Île-de-France region
In the 1870s, while some artists preferred plein-air sessions in Argenteuil, the suburbs of Paris housed two more Impressionists attractions – Pontoise and Auvers-sur-Oise, located close to each other, where the “masters of the school of impressions” lined up behind Camille Pissarro.
After living in Louveciennes and spending a short period of life in London, the Pissarro family moved to Pontoise and settled in the house at 26 rue de l'Hermitage.
Pissarro was not a "water artist", he wasn't amused by the fluid reflective effects on its surface. On the other hand, he perfectly felt the earthly, tangible materiality of the rural landscape with hard stone fences, lush vegetation, and tiled roofs covered with bright moss. The banks of the Oise were full of landscapes that were dear to the heart of the creator, and the undulating hills that began beyond Pontoise, became one of his favourite motifs.
Sometimes two Pauls – Cézanne and Gauguin – joined the maitre in his plein-air sessions. Despite the age gap, Cézanne and Pissarro established a productive creative dialogue, which fostered the development of both artistic talents for many years. These places are also marked by the twilight genius of van Gogh, who tragically ended his days in Auvers.
As for especially close friendship between Cézanne and Pissarro, it began in 1872. Cézanne, who at that time lived in Auvers-sur-Oise, would travel three kilometres on foot to Pontoise to work with “Papa Pissarro,” as the younger companions called the master.
In his memoirs, Lucien Pissarro, the artist's son, shared a remarkable story: "One day, my father was painting in the field, and Cézanne was sitting on the grass and watching him work. A passing peasant told my father: 'Your worker can't be bothered working!'"
Pontoise, which is situated on the right bank of the Oise River, thirty kilometres north of Paris, is the historical capital of the French Vexin, and later – of the Val-d'Oise region. The Camille Pissarro museum, opened in 1980, contains not only the works by the master himself, but also by his sons and other Impressionists – Daubigny, Signac, Guillaumin, Piette.
Photo of an exposition at the Camille Pissarro museum
Vétheuil, Île-de-France region
By 1880, when many of the Impressionists gained recognition and a steady income, they began to seek solitude. Even before that, Claude Monet preferred a slow-paced family life away from the noise of the capital. Leaving Argenteuil in 1878, he continued to move to the north-west, settling for several years in a wonderful village fifty kilometres from Paris – Vétheuil.
Soon, there was the new addition to the family – Monet's second son was born. But joy and grief often go hand in hand – his beloved Camille rapidly withered away into nothing...
In memory of Vétheuil, Monet had his canvases, flavoured with bitterness. The artist isolated himself in all senses – he withdrew into himself, refused to work in the open air, locked himself in a workshop and painted there still lifes with wild fowl, fruits and flowers. He gave up his reclusion only with the onset of winter cold. The frozen Seine, later thaw and ice drift – those were the main motifs of Monet's work during that difficult period.
The work by Auguste Renoir – Landscape at Vétheuil (1890, oil on canvas, 11.4×16.5 cm., The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.)
Giverny, the Upper Normandy region
90 km north of Paris in the direction of Rouen – and you are in the idyllic town of Giverny. And since Claude Monet, who settled and lived 40 years here, was often visited by his artistic friends – Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir, Pissarro, we also put this place on the list of "fancy places", where the Impressionists met. And Monet's guests often brought the host rare plants, which was beneficial to both the views and the paintings.
Leaving fragments of sorrows and hopes in Vétheuil, Monet moved further north, making a short stop in Poissy, at the Villa Saint-Louis. "I will travel until I find the house I need," said the artist, who changed many places of residence in his life. In 1883, his serene port became Giverny, a tiny settlement near Vernon, where the Ept river flows into the Seine. The wanderer 's soul was truly captivated by an old house in an abandoned apple orchard. Before, this area had been famous for the cottage industry of cider making, the village estate was even called "Le Pressior" – a pressing building. For the sake of renting the house, Monet had to get into debt, and only 10 years later the master had enough money to buy that nice place out so as not to part with it for the rest of his long life.
Японский мостик (Мостик над прудом с водяными лилиями)
1919, 66×107.5 см
Alice Hoschedé entered the master's life first as his faithful companion, and later – as his official wife. Six of her children and Claude's two offsprings gladly and diligently helped their parents in the improvement of the house and garden. Over time, the flora grew so densely that a professional gardener and his five assistants had to take care of it. The artist thought over the interior of the entire house, adding the Japanese vibe to the kitchen with blue tiles and the terrace overlooking the rare flowering plants.
Title photo of the site of The Foundation Claude Monet in Giverny
Today, Claude Monet's house with its famous garden and a pond is open to visitors, as it used to be open to the artist's colleague and friends – the hospitable maestro adored the whole caboodle!
Claude Monet's house in Giverny: the dining room
What were the guests treated to there? The hardships of poor years cultivated in both Renoir and Monet a special taste for Rabelaisian pleasures, especially in terms of food. In family life, both artists displayed tendencies of absolute gourmets.
Renoir’s culinary tricks were preserved in the memoirs of his son Jean, and Monet even added several recipes of his favourite dishes to his personal diaries – in them, for example, we can find the original way of cooking "Eggs Orsini" that were often served to the artist's guests.
The recipe is so simple that even an inexperienced housewife can show off this aristocratic dish. Let's try to imagine being invited for breakfast at the house of the famous Impressionist! We do not need anything exotic – just a few eggs, a pinch of salt and some butter.
The secret lies in the way of cooking these simple ingredients. So, the yolks should be carefully separated from the whites, and temporarily put aside right in the halves of the eggshells. Add some salt and whip egg whites into a fluffy foam, using a whisk or a mixer. Grease a tray with butter (you can do without butter, if you cover the baking sheet with parchment paper) and pour the egg whites onto it, making reasonably deep hollows on top of them with a spoon. Place the baking tray in the preheated 200 ° C oven for 3-4 minutes, then carefully place a yolk into each hollow and put the eggs back into the oven for another 5-6 minutes for final baking. Are the whites crispy and golden, and the yolks – just set? – voila, the famous "Eggs Orsini" are ready, feel like Monet! These fluffy egg whites with yellow yolks look very similar to water lilies adored by the artist, don't they?
By the way, not all Monet's flowers are equally harmless. One of his works of the Water Lilies series is notorious for literally attracting fire. So, shortly after its creation, the artist's studio burst into flame. The fire was quickly extinguished, and the incident itself was not given much attention. After a while, the painting was acquired by the owners of a small Parisian cabaret. Monet's lilies delighted the eye of their owners only for a cold minute – a month later the building burned to the ground. The canvas was among the few things saved from the burning building, and soon the ominous talisman came into the hands of the patron of art and collector Oscar Schmitz.
Can you guess what happened next? Indeed, a year later, only smouldering debris were left of his house! Note that the fire spread from the owner's office, housing the masterpiece – which came out unscathed again. The next owner of the canvas was the famous MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But the lilies did not stay long there either: in 1958, a terrible fire broke out on the floor where the Impressionists collection was located. This time, the canvas got it so bad that the question of its restoration still remains open...
600 000 visitors discover Monet's house in Giverny each year.
In Giverny, Claude Monet found a new method of work. He started capturing the same view in succession on several canvases, spending approximately half an hour on each sketch. In the following days, the cycle of short sessions was repeated. Thus he created a series of several canvases, reflecting the changeability of nature. For the first time, Claude used this method in 1888 while working on his Haystacks series, which later became a very successful commercial project.
In the autumn of 1890, the artist managed to arrange – his talent really extended beyond painting! – that hay near his home was not harvested for the winter. For several months, Monet methodically painted the series of haystacks in the open air at least three dozen times, adding some details in his studio. It resulted in 25 paintings sold within three days at the gallery of Durand-Ruel, the master's Parisian patron.
Completing our walk through the provincial places, adored by the Impressionists, we should pay a visit to the Giverny Museum of Impressionism. The address is simple: 99 Rue Claude Monet. At first, in 1992, Frenchman Daniel J. Terra founded a museum here, but the majority of works were... by American Impressionist artists! But in 2009, the museum changed its name and updated the exposition, displaying "Impressionism in general".
Vernonnet: Pierre Bonnard's garden
Finally, just 10 minutes from Giverny is the Vernonnet village, where Monet’s friend Pierre Bonnard created his most famous works. The two gardeners often visited each other, but their approaches to gardening were completely different.
Pierre Bonnard was a supporter of flowering, but genuine nature, and was not engaged in the systematic cultivation of plants. However, there was enough beauty for him – just look at his paintings! The garden is now privately owned, but you can contact the owner: Bertrand de Vautibault and Daniele Teisseire (0033 6 09 92 46 79; firstname.lastname@example.org).
It was for a reason that we spent so much time travelling through the sunny province – we needed to store warmth for the final part of our voyage with the Impressionists. We're in for a journey through the north of France...
Title illustration: Camille Pissarro. Field of Rye. Pontoise