Normandy celebrates 150 years of impressionism

<span>The cliffs, rock arch and beach of Étretat.</span><span>Photo: Mikel Bilbao Gorostiaga Travels/Alamy</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ fc09ec64b92″ data src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ c09ec64b92″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=The cliffs, rock arch and beach of Étretat.Photo: Mikel Bilbao Gorostiaga Travels/Alamy

“Every day I’m here, the sky and the sea are different,” says Anastasia Kharchenko, as an incessant drizzle patters on our umbrellas. “Sometimes you can’t even see the horizon because it’s so foggy, but in certain months the colors are just breathtaking.”

We stand on a grassy cliff above the town of Étretat on Normandy’s wind-sculpted Alabaster Coast, with its rugged chalk cliffs overlooking the white waters of the Channel. Kharchenko is the head of cultural partnerships at the Jardins d’Étretat, a collection of intricately designed gardens that twist and curl around the hillsides, dotted with quirky neo-futurist art installations. I apologize for the grim English weather as we look out at Étretat’s famous chalk arch and needle rock formations, which extend from the cliffs like an arm leaning lazily into the raging waves below.

Claude Monet was a regular visitor here in the late 19th century and painted this dramatic coastline just north of Le Havre more than 100 times, precisely because these capricious weather conditions added so much atmosphere to his work. But while Monet and the rest of the Impressionists were famous for their ethereal depictions of the outdoors here and in the chic Normandy countryside, their work was first seen together 150 years ago in a Paris photography studio.

The sunlight shining over the works of Renoir and Pissaro feels appropriate for a museum with the largest Impressionist collection outside Paris

Disillusioned by the haughty traditional taste of the Paris Salon, this group of artistic revolutionaries (including Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cézanne) held their groundbreaking Impressionist exhibition in April 1874. This year, the Normandie Impressioniste 2024 festival – which starts on March 22 – will host a series of events to mark the 150th anniversary of this landmark moment in art, with shows in coastal hotspot Deauville, Caen and many more in the region.

One of the works exhibited in 1874 was Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, a faint, loosely brushed image of the industrial port of Le Havre with a red morning sun reflecting on the water. It was painted in 1872 and is considered the first impressionist painting. It became particularly infamous thanks to the condescending comments of critic Louis Leroy, who unwittingly coined the term “Impressionism” in a review published in the magazine Le Charivari on April 25, 1874: “Impression, I was sure of it.” A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more complete than this seascape.”

Monet grew up in Le Havre, and at first glance the modern city is anything but the dreamy cradle of Impressionism you might imagine. After taking a two-hour train west from Paris, I emerge from Le Havre station onto the squat and sprawling Cours de la République. The tram to my hotel glides along the wide Boulevard de Strasbourg, flanked by an orderly mass of concrete apartments – the result of earlier buildings being destroyed in September 1944 by Allied bombs aimed at Nazi positions. After the Second World War, architect and master of concrete Auguste Perret decided to rebuild Le Havre quickly and cheaply.

By the time Perret’s work was completed in the 1960s, the city’s grim grid of blocky streets formed the new center ville led to Le Havre being cruelly referred to in some quarters as ‘Stalingrad-by-Sea’. But context is everything, and the longer I spend here, the clearer and more unique it feels. I have never seen it like this anywhere in France. Its straight lines and orderly appearance have a strange charm, not unlike some Japanese cities, and its modernist appearance was finally recognized by UNESCO in 2005.

“Here we say that Normandy is the birthplace of Impressionism,” says my guide Lise Legendre, as we stroll along the sea-watered promenade of Le Havre’s Saint Adresse district, where Monet lived and along which are permanent panels depicting 19th-century Impressionist work for fascinating comparisons with the current landscape.

“But to become famous and make a living from their art, they couldn’t do that here,” says Legendre. “They had to go to Paris. This is how we connect Normandy and Paris. We are very diplomatic.”

Paris was the dream, but Monet found himself and his style here. Hillside houses crash onto this corner of Le Havre’s undulating pebble beach, and glass-fronted bistros line the promenade preparing for the summer season. Dark silhouettes of container ships glide icily along the horizon, patiently waiting to enter the port. Back in the city, the Musée d’Art Moderne (MuMa) is preparing an intriguing exhibition, opening in May, that explores the relationship between Impressionism and the sepia-toned formative years of 19th-century photography, and how those images liberated the artists to distance themselves from true depictions of the world around them.

Natural light pours in through MuMa’s large floor-to-ceiling windows, and the sunlight shining over the works of Renoir and Pissaro feels appropriate for a museum with the largest Impressionist collection outside Paris. In this form, light is a celebration.

“Impressionist paintings are part of my childhood,” says the MuMa’s new director, Géraldine Lefebvre, who, rather conveniently, grew up on the rue Claude Monet in Le Havre. I ask her why the work of Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and co still resonates after 150 years. “Because they are paintings from everyday life,” she says. “They are full of life, colors, atmospheres. You feel the landscape. Maybe they are not intellectuals, but they are paintings that people can approach and understand.”

Monet’s obsessive nature took him along the winding banks of the Seine to Rouen, a cartoonishly beautiful city dotted with pastel-coloured half-timbered houses and notable for the soaring charcoal-black spire of its three-spired cathedral – the tallest in France at 151 metres. He painted the intricate facade of the Gothic cathedral 28 times under different lighting conditions, with the ghostly series becoming one of his most admired examples. And from May 24, every summer evening the Cathedral of Light show by the American artist Bob Wilson will splash on the facade, accompanied by music by Philip Glass and lyrics by Maya Angelou.

But for now it’s a surprisingly balmy March afternoon, with tourists wearing T-shirts and lounging outside on permanent wooden loungers. I wander through the zigzagging medieval streets of Rouen to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, where another exhibition of one of Normandy’s most surprising inhabitants will soon open.

David Hockney has lived here since 2019 and his Normandy exhibition is a blast of showy green landscapes and playful iPad portraits of his friends and loved ones. Admission is free and runs from this month until September 22, and the spot next to masterpieces by Monet and co is inspired.

France’s largest Impressionism exhibition opens later this month at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris (Paris 1874 Inventing Impressionism), but the Seine and Normandy could make a bigger mark, whatever the weather.

The trip was arranged by Normandy Tourism. The Normandy Impressionist Festival begins March 22nd. Hôtel and Spa Vent d’Ouest in Le Havre has doubles of €115 for a room only. Hôtel de Dieppe 1880 in Rouen has double prices from €127 B&B. Accommodation in Paris was provided by Hotel Leopoldwhich is double from €154 B&B. Direct trains run every hour from Paris Gare Saint Lazare to Le Havre and Rouen.

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