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How Normandy inspired the Impressionists

Visual Arts

How Normandy inspired the Impressionists

A region-spanning festival shows great works by Monet, Pissarro and others in the landscape that spurred their creativity

In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Emma Bovary begins the day-long cab ride with her lover that scandalised and satirised bourgeois France at Rouen cathedral, whose intricate gothic facade Monet painted some 30 times in different light and weather.

Marcel Proust gazed from the “aquarium” of the Grand Hôtel Cabourg’s dining room on to seas that Courbet depicted with a kitchen knife as tormented, raging swells. Paris was the capital of the 19th century but it was Normandy that shaped modern art and literature.

As relationships between the regions and the metropolis recalibrate in the post-Covid cultural landscape, the festival Normandie Impressionniste 2020, launching in July, is a template: of local strengths harnessed to global ideas, of world-class art gathered in a score of museums far from the madding crowd.

Pre-Impressionism in The Invention of Étretat at the Musée des Pêcheries in Fécamp can be seen against Étretat’s actual needlelike white cliffs jutting from the waves like outrageous sculptures. Summer panoramas of the Seine are backcloths for an account of their transformation by Bonnard into patchworks of luxuriant colour in the Musée de Vernon’s In the Studio. Art and botany converge in The Secret Herb Garden of Giverny at Rouen’s Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle.

The hedonistic invitation is to live the sites of pleasure in 19th-century French painting. The conceptual-historical intrigue is to explore the forces which made that painting happen.

Henri-Georges Adam’s 22-metre-wide concrete monument “The Signal”, resembling an outsize eye or a giant shell according to where you stand, welcomes visitors to Le Havre’s Musée d’Art Moderne André Malraux (MuMa), perched on the seafront. Its glass facade and louvred roof, designed by Jean Prouvé, allow ever-changing coastal light to filter on to paintings that were created to reflect just those mutable effects of Norman weather and luminosity.

Charles Lacoste’s ‘The Shadow Hand’ (1896) © Hervé Lewandowski

MuMa’s Impressionism starts with the blustery seascapes of Monet’s teacher, Honfleur marine painter Eugène Boudin, and features outstanding Monets from every epoch, many painted in Normandy: from the 1870s classic “Winter Sun, Lavacourt” — diffuse light reflected off the frozen Seine in a silent, crystalline composition of melancholy pastel harmonies — to a reflective, abstracting “Waterlilies”.

MuMa’s festival show Electric Nights — with fiery nocturnes such as Kees van Dongen’s funfair swirl “Place Pigalle by Night” and Charles Lacoste’s mysterious silhouettes spreading across an inky sky “The Shadow Hand” — explores Impressionism’s long reach, how its broken stroke and fragmenting light and colour enabled younger artists to address a new urban phenomenon: cities illuminated by electricity.

It is a perfect subject for Le Havre, Normandy’s most defiantly modern city now as in the 19th century. Monet grew up here: the defining “Impression, Sunrise” depicts Le Havre’s steamy port. As for many immigrants, this was Camille Pissarro’s first view of France — he disembarked in Le Havre as a child in 1842, from the Caribbean island of St Thomas — and also his last: his final works, another MuMa highlight, depict the high-tech, frenetic “The Outer Harbour of Le Havre” and “The Pilots’ Jetty”.

Camille Pissarro’s ‘The Pilots’ Jetty’ (1903) © Alamy

Napoleon considered Le Havre, Rouen and Paris essentially one city, linked by a highway: the Seine. Normandy was always rich — lush, fertile countryside, close to the capital — but industrialisation crystallised its advantages: railway connections, and steamships, especially to America, by which Le Havre outstripped Marseille as France’s leading port. A modern outlook and entrepreneurial money forged and funded Impressionism; a third local factor — the changeable climate — determined it as an art of movement, transience, fleeting effects.

All these strands play across the festival’s flagship show François Depeaux, The Man with 600 Paintings, at Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Arts. Depeaux, Normandy’s wealthiest collector, donated the paintings that make Rouen’s Impressionist holdings second only to the Musée d’Orsay’s; now the museum reunites his collection.

Kees van Dongen’s ‘Le Carrousel, Place Pigalle’ (1901) © Mathieu Rabeau

Like most new art patrons, Depeaux was an innovator: a Rouen industrialist who sailed to Swansea in Wales, spotted opportunity, opened a coal mine, made a fortune. He brought the artist Alfred Sisley to the Welsh coast — Sisley’s feathery “Lady’s Cove, Wales” was the result — and had an eye for the best of each artist: Sisley’s mild landscapes; Renoir’s figure paintings “Dance at Bougival” and sulky, tangle-haired, semi-dressed “Lise”; Pissarro’s architectonic views of Rouen’s triple-span iron bridge, the “Pont Boieldieu” series. From Monet he acquired the explosive holiday vista “Rue Saint-Denis, fête du 30 juin 1878”, flags in fat staccato strokes flapping down a narrow street, urban solidity lifted by an agitated lyricism.

Monet began by calling Depeaux “le charbonnier” (the coalman), but after the collector helped him secure shop premises from which to paint the cathedral at Rouen, he became “le sauveur” (the saviour). The “Cathedrals” were controversial and expensive, and initially “except for Monsieur Depeaux, everyone is frightened by my prices”. Depeaux chose “Rouen Cathedral, Facade and the Tour d’Albane, Grey Weather”, the massive medieval front veiled in mist, the cool tonality lit only by a touch of orange on the clock face, yet the whole retaining a febrile linearity even as it shimmers into a mirage.

Paris was the capital of the 19th century but it was Normandy that shaped modern art and literature

“Everything changes, even stone,” Monet groaned. The “Cathedrals” telescope two sorts of time: an ancient, almost geological sense of the past — “Rouen cathedral is like a cliff” — and the instantaneity of swift effects of light and shadow under the city’s heavy skies.

“‘Rouen Cathedral’ will have as many forms of existence as man can make divisions of time,” said Georges Clemenceau. It is always intoxicating to see a “Cathedral” in the city of the original, emphasising Monet’s transformation of the motif into a memory, Flaubertian acute observation giving way to Proustian themes of shifting time and perception.

Normandie Impressionniste 2020’s subtitle is “A New Day, A New Colour”. Impressionism, an art of instability, grew out of responses to fast-moving skies and seas, which in turn drew hordes of artists to Normandy. Two late openings, in September, will treat the subject in situ: Cherbourg’s Travels to Unknown Lands, showcasing seascapes created in the inaccessible Cotentin Peninsula by Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Signac; and Honfleur’s The Colours of the Sea, devoted to the gentle precursor of twilit ocean views and studies of rocks at low tide, Charles-François Daubigny. Not coincidentally did Van Gogh paint three homages, “Daubigny’s Garden”, in his final months.

‘Falaises au soleil couchant’ (c1880), by Karl Daubigny, son of Charles-François Daubigny

Van Gogh in Arles turned the axis of Modernism to the Mediterranean. At the same time, Cézanne, the only southerner among the Impressionists, set out to “make of Impressionism something solid and enduring like the art in the museums” — a return under steady Provençal suns to classical stability. That evolution is recounted in Paris at the Musée Marmottan Monet’s Cézanne and the Master Painters: a Dream of Italy, which closed soon after its launch but has now reopened, extended to January 2021. The contrast between these works and those in Normandie Impressionniste 2020 unfold a wonderful story of how geography determines history.

‘Normandie Impressionniste 2020’; July 4-November 15,

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