Rouen – Étretat – Honfleur – Aix, L'Estaque, Gardanne – Cagnes-sur-Mer
Fertile France is widely spread in several climatic zones. One can find here the reserved northern seaside landscapes, as well as bright colours of the southern subtropics. Many artists had their own preferences when choosing subjects for their paintings. Some of them, like Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne, loved to return to their native lands, while others got a special impulse when travelling through the unexplored lands. Let's take a look at both – north and south, reflected in the paintings of the Impressionists.
French Impressionists: the North
Of all French regions, the artists were most familiar with Normandy: Impressionists' routes included Rouen and Dieppe, Étretat and Honfleur. The Norman Atlantic coast is conventionally divided into two parts with poetic names – the Flower Coast and the Alabaster Coast. The Flower Coast is located to the west of Le Havre, the Alabaster one spread to the east. And believe us, these territories have many impressions in store for a sophisticated aesthete!
Rouen, the Upper Normandy region
An hour train ride from Paris – and we are in Rouen, the ancient capital of Normandy. The city is considered a true "artistic Mecca." Its medieval streets, Gothic cathedrals and bridges over the Seine inspired Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Paul Gauguin. No wonder that Pissarro deemed Rouen "as beautiful as Venice!"
A postcard depicting Carnot Square, Pont Boieldieu and Rouen Cathedral. The old Carnot Square no longer exists, but there is a place with the same name east of here
The majestic cathedral, this Notre-Dame of Rouen, is familiar to us not only from photographs, but also from Monet's paintings. In the period from 1892 to 1894, the artist created a series of fifty canvases depicting the cathedral's front, using it as a subject to display a breathing atmosphere and iridescent play of light at different times of the day. The artist rented a studio with an excellent view of the building and worked so passionately that fell into a state of extreme nervous exhaustion.
"And something which never happens, my sleep was filled with nightmares: the cathedral fell down on top of me, it appeared either blue, pink or yellow," Monet wrote to his wife. Just imagine how aesthetically vulnerable and sensitive this man was! – in one word, Impressionist...
On the left: Claude Monet, The Rouen Cathedral, main entrance (1892). Private collection
Later, twenty works selected by the master made up the exposition of the exhibition at the Parisian Salon of Durand-Ruel in May 1895.
...It is no secret that creative envy often serves as an incentive for the development of the arts. Camille Pissarro admired Monet's series, and at the same time considered it a kind of challenge. In the end, the artist decided: he would go to Rouen to work. And he eventually offered his own interpretation of the Rouen subjects, where the cathedral was just a detail of the city, and the city itself was the background for the boundless energy of the human mass.
Pissarro also made trips to Dieppe. Both cities had preserved the Gothic architecture, both were major ports in the north of France. With a fresh eye, the artist noticed the contrasts of the interweaving of medieval history with the signs of an incipient industrial age.
Born in Paris, but raised in Normandy, Monet always enjoyed the poor beauty of the northern coast. Whitish cliffs breaking off into the sea near Étretat, a small town 180 km from Paris, are the subjects of many of the artist's works. In 1883-1886, Monet gladly came there for the plein-air. His favourite motif was the Manneporte, a huge natural arch, formed by erosion of soft rock by ocean waves. The Manneporte is depicted in six of sixty paintings, created by the master on the coast.
1.2. Claude Monet Étretat, Cliff of d`Aval, Sunset (1883)
Over the course of the 19th century, the quiet fishing village of Étretat gradually turned into a fashionable resort on the Alabaster Coast. The villas, offering a good rest, began to appear here as early as in the 1830s, and after a couple of decades, they were complemented with such attributes of civilization as a theatre and casino. Writers Hugo, Dumas, Maupassant, and especially Alphonse Karr, who wrote the novel based on local historical material, contributed a lot to the popularization of the area.
Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Eugène Delacroix and Eugène Boudin created their paintings here. Among the Impressionists, who visited Étretat, we should mention Edouard Manet, and among Russian painters – Vasily Polenov and Ilya Repin, who made a joint trip to Normandy in 1874.
On the left: Gustave Caillebotte, Pere Magloire on the Road to Saint-Clair, Étretat (1884)
Honfleur, the Upper Normandy region
All photos of Honfleur – livejournal.com
Cozy old Honfleur, stretching over the mouth of the Seine, is called the "city of artists." And this is far from being a pretentious exaggeration. Since the 19th century, the time of a huge interest to romanticism, many artists have set their hearts on the Flower Coast. Corot, Courbet, Renoir, Sisley, Jean-François Millet, William Turner, Charles-François Daubigny, Georges Seurat, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Paul Signac – it's just part of the list of famous artists who celebrated local beauty.
Even today, there are more galleries than restaurants here. The narrow facades of houses above the waters of the Old Harbor, the forest of ship masts, the surrounding village idyll – everything breathes a blissful and carefree life.
On the left: Claude Monet, Street of the Bavolle, Honfleur (1864). The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
Monet discovered Honfleur during his adolescent period. Here fate brought the young man together with artists Eugène Boudin and Johan Jongkind, who became his first mentors. It was Boudin who insisted that Monet join him to paint outdoors. He claimed: "Everything that is painted on the spot has always a strength, a power, a vividness of touch that one doesn't find again in the studio."
1.2. Claude Monet's work
... and its modern view
1.2. Johan Jongkind, "The Entrance to the Port of Honfleur" (1864)
In all likelihood, communication with Boudin and Jongkind was a decisive factor in Frédéric Bazille's professional identity. As a student of the hated medical school, he first came to the local lands in 1864 in the company of Monet and began to really enjoy working in open air. Bazille's letters to his parents were full of enthusiasm and fascination. And the parents reeled back and gave in, letting his son change his life path.
One of the favourite places of the creative Bohemia was The Saint-Simeon Farm on a hill above the town, offering a magnificent view of the mouth of the Seine, which flows into the ocean. The artists could always find bed and board in this “Norman Barbizon”, and amazing subjects for plein-airs – nearby. True Frenchmen, they knew how to enjoy extremely delicious food cooked by “Mother Toutain,” the innkeeper, and a glass of good cider or Calvados in the heat of a friendly dispute. And they also knew how to work from dawn till dusk – the artists were never short of the subjects!
Eugène Boudin, The Saint-Simeon Farm (1856)
No wonder that Bazille considered Honfleur to be a paradise!
Above: La Ferme Saint Simeon Spa, our times. Photo: lesplusbeauxspas.com
Photo of the entrance to the Eugène Boudin Museum
Today, there is the Eugène Boudin Museum in Honfleur. It covers an area of 1200 m² and features nine permanent exhibitions. Apart from Boudin's paintings, the museum can also boast works by other Impressionists who visited the Saint-Simeon Farm.
Photo of one of the halls of the Eugène Boudin Museum
French Impressionists: the South
Aix-en-Provence, L'Estaque and Gardanne, Provence region – The Alps – Côte d'Azur
Probably, no other Impressionist was more controversial and unruly than Paul Cézanne. Born in the south, he was known as a wild guy who didn’t get close to anyone in Paris, never feeling with-it. The artist’s surname itself was tricky: Cézanne sounds like "seize ans", which in French means "sixteen years", and the variations of puns are countless...
Cézanne spent years switching between the capital, where he tried to achieve recognition, and his native Provence, which never failed to inspire him. Paul's favourite place was the estate Jas de Bouffan ("House of the Winds") in Aix en Provence acquired by the artist's father. For forty years, from 1859 to 1899, the family home was the painter’s secluded abode and an open-air workshop.
1.2. The Bastide du Jas de Bouffan, our times. Photo: photo-paca.fr
Obsessed with moving, Cézanne didn't stay long at one place in Provence. He seemed to strive to cover the whole region from Aix to Marseille, to capture on the canvases its mountains and the mist over the sea, the bright sky, the sun-scorched earth and the tiled roofs of the southern villages. The artist saw in the landscapes of the French Riviera a reflection of the “great classical landscapes” of Italy and Greece.
Cézanne repeatedly visited the small Provencal towns of L'Estaque and Gardanne. He made sketches in the Arc River Valley and in the abandoned quarries known as Bibémus, being fascinated by the powerful architectonics of the faults. The author’s legacy includes about three hundred images of native places. One of the most important subjects for the master was Mont Sainte-Victoire, familiar to him from his childhood – Cézanne depicted it in more than 60 paintings.
1.2. Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire (1906)
By the way, in L'Estaque, Cézanne was visited by Renoir and Monet – one of the few Impressionists who understood and supported him.
The Aix-en-Provence Tourist Office offers tours through the most important places in the city and surrounding area that you can share Cezanne's experience. They include walking routes along mountain paths, a visit to the artist's studio, family estate and open-air museum.
Cézanne's studio – photo from the museum's official website
Cagnes-sur-Mer, Provence region – The Alps – Côte d'Azur
At the beginning of the 20th century, Renoir experienced an apogee of his glory – large solo exhibitions, successful sales of paintings and receiving the Legion of Honour. Unfortunately, the artist’s health condition was far from perfect – severe arthritis forced him to flee from the dank fogs of middle latitudes. The Renoir family moved to the Mediterranean coast, to the town of Cagnes-sur-Mer, 12 kilometres from Nice.
Their new home became the estate of Les Collettes, surrounded by the shade of centuries-old orange and olive trees. For the first time Auguste visited these sunny lands with his friend Claude Monet in 1883, when there was built a railway to the Cote d'Azur, and even then he was impressed by the abundance of southern nature.
After getting married, the maitre's wife, Aline Charigot, that airy, ethereal gentle creature, snuggling a dog in the foreground of the painting Luncheon of the Boating Party (see the illustration on the left) discovered a considerable business acumen. Appreciating the new land, she demonstrated a teeming activity. The harvest from the garden of Les Collettes was so great that part of it was sold, and the grapes served as perfect raw material for making wine.
Practical Aline huffed and puffed about her husband not helping her in the garden – the income from the sale of fleur-d'orange alone could have been more than enough to live comfortably!
Auguste continued to paint, in spite of his progressive disease. The estate, garden and old farm are recognizable in the late works of the artist. However, Renoir never depicted his new house, that he designed on his own. The classical artist was often visited by his good friend Henri Matisse, as well as Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Auguste Rodin.
Now the house is turned into The Renoir museum, all of its twelve rooms are open to the public. The interior remained untouched – the furniture, things in the living quarters and the workshop are placed in the same way as during the artist's life. In the museum, you can see a dozen original paintings by the master and sculptures made together with Richard Guino, as well as many photographs depicting Auguste at work and in the family circle.
The Renoir Museum in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Photo: cagnes-tourisme.com
Our journey "from North to South" with the Impressionists ends on a triumphal note: just admit it – we've chosen the most impressive type of learning geography that you have ever imagined.
Cover illustration: Paul Cézanne. Mont Sainte-Victoire, the view from the Albert-Charles Lebourg pit