In Civilisations, a remarkably animated Simon Schama discussed the profound effect of Japanese prints on the work of Claude Monet, the French painter who changed art history when he gave impressionism a name with Impression, Sunrise in 1872.
Famously, Monet created a water garden complete with a Japanese bridge at his house at Giverny in Normandy, where he obsessively painted waterlilies for the last two decades of his life (he died in 1926). Today, Giverny is one of the most popular tourist spots in France. But if you seek out Monet’s haunts in an earlier period of his life, in a quieter part of Normandy, you can stand where he put his easel and even drink cider in his bedroom, without queueing once.
The Water-Lily Pond (image courtesy of National Gallery)
The village of Vétheuil, just inside Normandy, is tucked beneath a chalk escarpment halfway along the River Seine’s solemn procession from Paris to the coast. Monet lived here with his first wife (and, before that, lover) Camille Doncieux, the dark-haired muse of many of his early pictures. They shared a house with the bankrupt art collector Ernest Horschedé and his wife Alice, who nursed the desperately ill Camille for two years until her death, aged 32, in 1879. Even in tragedy Monet wouldn’t, or couldn’t, stop working and his painting of Camille on her deathbed hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
All through this dismal time, Monet created ravishing water- and garden-scapes such as The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil (1880) in which his infant son Michel stands, motherless, among sky-high sunflowers. Today, 16 Avenue Claude Monet is a guesthouse. Visitors are welcomed with a glass of the region’s cider and a slice of home-baked plum sponge in the ground-floor room where Monet slept as Camille languished above. Walk up the hill to the village graveyard and you’ll find her resting place, under a filigree cross and a marble slab that says, simply: “Camille Doncieux, épouse du peintre Claude Monet, 1847–1879”.
Intrigued by the interplay of light and colour during the passage of time, Monet was particularly attracted to centuries-old buildings. He painted the 13th-century Romanesque church at Vétheuil many times and also, at the small port of Honfleur where the Seine meets the sea, the Lieutenancy – a 16th-century official building at the entrance to the madly picturesque harbour, Vieux Bassin. The bars and restaurants along the quayside demand you stop for an aperitif as the sun flickers on the water. Afterwards you can stand on the same spot Monet did to paint the Lieutenancy.
Honfleur was a favourite resort not just of Monet, but of many artists, including Boudin, Corot, Courbet, Bazille and Daubigny.They’d stay above the town at the famous inn on the 17th-century La Ferme Saint Siméon. Built in the traditional, Norman-timbered style, it’s now a five-star hotel and spa. Inside, the massive wooden beams give the ground-floor restaurant the feel of a 19th-century sailing ship. After a meal laden with local cream and cheese and a glass or two of Normandy Calvados, you wouldn’t be too surprised to find that the building had slipped its moorings and set sail.
Honfleur (photo courtesy of D Dumas, Normandy Tourist Board)
Work off your lunch by climbing to the top of the hill, crowned by the delightful 17th-century Notre-Dame de Grâce Chapel, painted by Monet in 1864. The bells hang in their own belfry outside the chapel, while small boats and offerings to the Virgin hang within the chapel.
At Le Havre visit the André Malraux Museum of Modern Art, which has a dark, intensely green 1904 painting of Waterlilies. Along the coast, Trouville-sur-Mer is still recognisably the genteel resort Monet painted in 1870. There are wilder shores to explore on the Ala- baster Coast at Varengeville-sur-Mer and at Etretat, where Monet’s hotel room at Le Donjon looked out over the cliffs. Monet didn’t need to be at the coast to find a cliff-face to paint, however. Between 1892 and 1895 he produced a series of 30 studies of light and shade locked in struggle on the man-made precipice of Rouen cathedral.
The Museum at Le Havre (image courtesy of National Gallery)
These paintings have been called the supreme achievement of impressionism – and seven of them, along with paintings of Vétheuil and the Lieutenancy, can be seen at the National Gallery’s Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture, in London from 9 April to 29 July.
In Rouen itself, the wonderful Musée des Beaux-Arts holds one of Monet’s series on the cathedral, along with the second-largest collection of impressionist paintings in France, and, on our visit, it was nearly empty. It deserves to be much better known – but not just yet.
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Visits to Monet’s house and gardens in the Normandy village of Giverny, to the ‘Joan of Arc’ city of Rouen, and to the incomparable French capital Paris, are the wonderful highlights of this hugely popular tour. Click here for more details and to book
Follow in the footsteps of two of the greatest artists of all time, along with the powerful kings and queens of France. Just some of the highlights to enjoy include the home of Claude Monet, one of the founders of impressionist painting, and the world famous Palace of Versailles, built by Louis XIV. We also visit the home of Leonardo da Vinci and the magnificent Château de Chenonceau. Based in the Île-de-France, we are in the perfect spot for visiting these places and enjoying a relaxing break. Click here or more details and to book