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Celebrating Impressionism Where It Was Born

Monet, Courbet and Boudin all painted the beach, cliffs and iconic arches at Etretat, France. Photo courtesy of Joan Scobey.

Monet, Courbet and Boudin all painted the beach, cliffs and iconic arches at Etretat, France. Photo courtesy of Joan Scobey.

By Joan Scobey

In the late 19th century a dazzling roster of painters — Monet, Boudin, Manet, Renoir, Courbet, Pissarro, Sisley, Gauguin — vacationed in Normandy, drawn by the beaches and fishing ports. They painted light and the movement of water in new ways and captured the dramatic cliffs and vibrant seaside life in some of the world’s most beloved paintings.
Not only did they popularize the Normandy coast as a summer playground, but they also created an enduring art movement, which took its name from “Impression, Sunrise,” an evocative seascape Monet painted at Le Havre in 1872. So what could be more appropriate than a region-wide celebration of these painters and their work. The first Normandy Impressionist Festival opened June 4 and  will run into mid-September (longer in some venues).
The festival is an ambitious undertaking of more than 300 events: paintings, of course, but also the influence of Impressionism on film, dance, music and literature; works of young contemporary artists; even picnics and parties along the Seine. You could happily spend the summer celebrating Impressionism all over the region, but if time is limited, here are five don’t-miss highlights where you’ll see great Impressionist paintings and some places where they were created.
1. Giverny is the delightful village where Claude Monet moved in 1883 with his companion, Alice Hoschede, and their eight children, and lived for 43 years. A passionate gardener, he designed the gardens to paint them, collected plants on his travels, and sent them home with instructions on where to place them for correct height and color. Ten years later, Monet bought land across the road, diverted an existing stream to create a pond for his famous water lilies, fringed it with bamboo stands and weeping willows and built a green wisteria-laden Japanese bridge. Strolling these magical gardens is like walking through a Monet painting. The house and gardens are open daily, April 1 to Nov. 1.
Nearby is the year-old Museum of Impressionisms (formerly the Museum of American Art), where “Impressionism along the Seine” evokes the diverse aspects of river life that inspired so many artists, from Boudin to Matisse, including Monet, Renoir, Manet, Corot, Seurat and Pissarro. Open daily through July 18.
2. Rouen, the capital of Normandy, is virtually the capital of the Impressionist Festival. At its Fine Arts Museum an exceptional exhibit, “A City for Impressionism: Monet, Pissarro, Gauguin in Rouen,” explores the city’s influence on the Impressionist movement through some 250 paintings, 150 of them borrowed from public and private collections around the world. Monet made 11 paintings of Rouen Cathedral, essentially simultaneously, going from one to another as the light changed; seven are in the show. June 4-Sept.; open daily except Tuesday.
The city’s other Impressionist events include theatrical sound and light shows at Rouen Cathedral and the Fine Arts Museum (“Les Nuits Impressionnistes”); photography exhibitions; opera (Pelleas et Melisande); pop and classical concerts; even Impressionist stoneware at the Ceramics Museum; and, if you are French-speaking, theater and lectures.
Add the timber-framed Norman houses and cobbled streets of the old town where William the Conqueror died, and the layers of history that place Roman foundations by the modern church in the market square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. With easy rail connections to Le Havre, Dieppe and other festival sites, Rouen makes an excellent base.
3. Seine Valley. The meandering Seine passes close to Rouen, its banks dotted with sites linked to the Impressionists. At two tiny villages facing each other across the river, for instance, Alfred Sisley painted “The Seine at La Bouille, a gust of wind” and “The path at the riverside at Sahurs, at night.” Free-standing panels reproduce each painting and mark the exact spots where Sisley placed his easel. Throughout Normandy there are 25 such panels that celebrate particular paintings; works of Boudin and Pissarro in Le Havre and Dieppe, and Monet at Etretat, Fecamp, Rouen, Giverny and Le Havre. Each of the panels evokes a marvelous marriage of painting and place at sites that often haven’t changed much in 150 years.
4. The neighboring seaside villages of Fecamp and Etretat on Normandy’s Alabaster Coast, named for its dramatic white chalk cliffs that plunge steeply into the English Channel, were magnets for the Impressionists. Etretat’s main streets, lined with beamed and gabled Norman houses, lead to the pebbled beach between two great cliffs, both scaled by paths with breathtaking views of the sea and the pointy free-standing rock called The Needle. These scenes were eye candy for many artists –Monet, Courbet and Boudin among them — and when you first see the iconic rocky cliffs arching over the water, you may have a pleasant shock of recognition.
5. Honfleur is sometimes called the “cradle of Impressionism,” and Eugene Boudin, a native son, its father. He took young Monet, from nearby Le Havre, for his first outdoor painting expedition. Later they brought Courbet, Corot, Sisley, Pissarro and Renoir to Honfleur to work; the artists hung out at the Auberge St.-Simeon, a 17th  century farmhouse that became a virtual art colony (today it is a beautifully restored inn, renamed La Ferme St.-Simeon). Wander around the old fishing port, the high narrow old houses mirrored in the harbor and into the cobbled streets with their timber-framed buildings that enchanted so many artists. Their story is the theme of “Honfleur: Between Tradition and Modernity, 1820-1900,” the Eugene Boudin Museum; June 2- Sept. 6.
For Impressionist aficionados, here are other compelling festival events throughout the region:
“Unpublished Degas,” running through Sept. 19; “Signac: Ports of France,” Oct. 1 to Jan. 30, 2011, both at the Andre Malraux Museum, Le Havre, home to the second largest collection of Impressionist works in France (after the Musee d’Orsay in Paris).
“Millet at the Dawn of Impressionism,” Thomas-Henry Art Museum, Cherbourg-Octeville; running through Sept. 12.
“The Impressionists at Dieppe,” Castle-Museum, Dieppe; June 27 to Sept. 26.
“In the Footsteps of Corot in Normandy,” Saint-Lo Fine Arts Museum; running through Oct. 31.
“Impressionist Prints,” Musee des Beaux-Arts, Caen, including Manet, Mary Cassatt, Pissarro and Degas; running through Sept. 5.
For the entire festival program, visit


Where to stay:
Rouen: Hotel de Bourgtheroulde, 15 Place de la Pucelle,
Etretat: Domaine Saint-Clair, Chemin St-Clair,
Fecamp: Le Grand Pavois Hotel, 15 quai de la Vicomte,
Honfleur: La Ferme St-Simeon, rue A. Marais,
Getting around: From Paris (Gare Saint-Lazare), the train to Vernon takes 45 minutes, with a short taxi or bike ride to Giverny; Rouen is another 45 minutes by rail. From Rouen, Le Havre and Dieppe are less than an hour, Caen is 11/2 hours and Cherbourg 21/2 hours.
For more information log on to ATOUT FRANCE, the official French Tourist Office, at and Rail Europe at Air France has 13 U.S. gateways with nonstop flights to Paris:

Joan Scobey is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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