Feb 2, 2017

Normandy for art lovers


Sally Macmillan discovers the famous art trail of Northern France.

Master Impressionist Claude Monet loved Rouen so much he spent several months there between 1892 and 1893, painting its beautiful Gothic Notre-Dame cathedral in all lights and weather. Today you can see an easel set up by the window in rooms Monet rented above a shop in the rue Grand-Pont, opposite the cathedral – just one of the temporary studios he worked in.

And while the 30 cathedral paintings are now displayed in art galleries or held in private collections around the world, one of the series, Rouen Cathedral, Grey Weather, is a permanent fixture in Rouen’s marvellous Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Monet also produced panoramic views of the city from St Catherine Hill. Once you’ve visited the Musée des Beaux-Arts – a must-do for art lovers – there’s a fairly steep but rewarding walk to the hilltop where you can drink in the same vista that inspired the artist more than a century ago.

The old city is eminently walkable, from the cathedral and famous Gros- Horloge clock tower to winding medieval lanes flanked by half-timbered houses and the startlingly modern church devoted to St Joan of Arc.

Back on the art trail, Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny are among France’s most visited sites. The artist designed the gardens to reflect the colours of every season and are just as magical as you’d expect from his wonderful water lily paintings.

He lived there for 43 years, building up and planting a hectare of land that became Clos Normand, filling the Japanese-style water garden with water lilies he imported from Egypt and South America (much to the consternation of his neighbours) and then capturing the results on some 250 canvases.

“I’m good for nothing except painting and gardening,” he once said.

The family home has been painstakingly restored and offers an insight into how the Impressionist master lived and worked from 1883 until his death at the grand old age of 86 in 1926.

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The interiors are vibrant – a sunny yellow kitchen, blue kitchen, turquoise accents in his wife, Alice’s bedroom – and despite the number of visitors, tours are orderly and not impossibly crowded. Just up the road is the Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny, which is dedicated to Monet’s influence on the Impressionist movement in France and overseas.

Auvers-sur-Oise is a picturesque village not far from Giverny that attracted many artists during the 19th century, including Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, Jean- Baptiste-Camille Corot and Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh lived in more than 30 places in four different countries during his frenetic lifetime and moved to Auverssur- Oise in 1890 following a spell in the asylum at Saint-Rémy. He was 37 years old and only lived there for 10 weeks before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

During this time, Van Gogh produced an astounding 70 paintings of Auvers-sur- Oise and the surrounding countryside. A guided walk reveals how little the places he painted so vividly have changed; the village church and cemetery (where he is buried alongside his beloved brother Theo), peaceful wheat fields, the town hall and Auberge Ravoux, the inn where he rented a room.

Auberge Ravoux now houses a small Van Gogh museum and the artist’s small, bare room is open to visitors. It is sobering to contemplate how much his works sell for today, considering he died in abject poverty.

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Honfleur was another magnet for artists in the 19th century.

This historic port, set on the estuary where the Seine meets the English Channel, has been painted countless times over the years.

Impressionists were captivated by the ever-changing coastal light and the imposing 16th to 17th-century houses that line the harbour.

Today’s visitors throng quayside restaurants and modern art galleries in the narrow back streets and are just as enchanted by what they behold.