Last spring in the Paris Metro, I paused to admire a colorful advertisement for the Impressionist Normandy Festival, a celebration of the region's role in the Impressionist painting movement.
My brother Davey, an art history major at Connecticut College, was contemplating an ad for detergent. "Hey, bro!" I called. "Check this out."
Whenever I see Impressionist paintings at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the airy brushstrokes transport me to the late 19th century French villages. So I was intrigued to learn that until late September, the festival will celebrate Impressionist painters and their favorite muses: the Seine Valley, the medieval city of Rouen and seaside towns along France's northern coastline.
Impressionist Normandy presents linked museum exhibitions, concerts, outdoor balls and thematic "Impressionist Itineraries," or self-guided walking-driving tours. Over three days in June, I followed two of the itineraries highlighting two themes: "Gardens" and "The Moment."
Some of the gardens are in Giverny, a touristy town about 50 miles west of Paris and a former hotbed of Impressionist activity. Claude Monet lived in Giverny from 1883 until his death in 1926. After touring his house, Davey and I wandered through his backyard, where Monet composed some of his most iconic paintings. Walking among the artist's bamboo trees and azalea bushes, we followed a babbling brook until we reached his famous waterlily pond.
I had seen Monet's waterlily canvases at the Met in New York and the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, so his pond seemed vaguely familiar, like a place you remember from childhood. The scene probably didn't look too much different, I realized, than it had in the 1880s. I marveled at how the painter's hand had magically evoked all those subtle ripples and reflections —
"A fish!" a little boy observed. "Did anyone see?"
Our next stop was the Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny (formerly the Musée d'Art Américain Giverny), where we saw "Impressionism on the Seine," an exhibition of river landscapes painted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The museum's general director, Diego Candil, says the exhibit shows how the term "Impressionism" embraces a range of painting techniques.
"Most people think Impressionism just began one day with one group of painters," Candil says. "But in fact, when you look deeply, it seems natural that Impressionists were influenced by other painters, and that less than 10 years after the 'beginning' of Impressionism, you already had post-Impressionists."
Viewing works by Gustave Caillebotte, Paul Signac and Auguste Renoir, I tried to notice the different seasons and lighting conditions that each painter had captured. The Seine began to sparkle, I think. At least it looked more like a dynamic presence than a static subject.
Soon I was admiring the actual Seine in Rouen, about 40 miles northwest of Giverny. My friend Susann and I had traveled there from Paris to follow an "Impressionist Itinerary" about "The Moment," a term I understood to mean the momentary interplay of color and light.
Our pamphlet directed us to a spot of pavement near the Jeanne d'Arc Bridge, where we saw a reproduction of an 1896 Camille Pissarro painting, "La Seine à Rouen, Saint-Sever."
Pissarro's muted landscape depicts tugboats plying the Seine. Laurent Salomé, director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, says that by focusing on that urban scene, Pissarro was exploring France's transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. Because the Seine was both an industrial artery and a leisure destination, Salomé adds, Normandy offered painters great visual and social contrasts.
"French people are very interested in the world wars, and they don't think the end of the 19th century was important, but it was," Salomé says. "This art raises issues about factories, the bourgeoisie and political movements, and you couldn't tell the same story through paintings of Burgundy or the Alps."
The day after our Seine stroll, Susann and I rented an electric scooter and drove through the village of Bonsecours to the Côte Sainte-Catherine. It was from this promontory that Claude Monet painted his Impressionist "Vue Générale de Rouen," a precursor to his famous studies of the Rouen Cathedral (which the Allies partially destroyed during World War II).
The Côte Sainte-Catherine felt sleepy and pastoral, but beyond the spires of the Rouen Cathedral, we saw smokestacks and highways. Did Monet experience a similar rural-urban contrast when he painted this panoramic view? And would he have liked our picnic of hard cider, fresh baguettes and Neufchâtel cheese?
That evening we watched the sun glint off the Rouen Cathedral — a phenomenon Monet must have ritually observed in 1892 and 1893, when he painted the cathedral 30 times. Around dusk we strolled to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen to see the Impressionist Normandy Festival's signature exhibition, "A City for Impressionism: Monet, Pissarro and Gauguin in Rouen."
Staged at a cost of almost $4 million, the exhibition presents famous Impressionist paintings of the Rouen area, including 11 of Monet's famous cathedral studies, alongside lesser-known works by Rouen painters Joseph Delattre, Charles Frechon and Léon Jules Lemaître — pioneers of what museum director Laurent Salomé calls the Rouen School.
("They were totally avant-garde, but they have been forgotten by art historians because they were provincial, and they didn't want to go to Paris," Salomé claims. "And when you remain provincial in France, it's death!")
The exhibition was so impressive that it was almost disconcerting: Susann and I felt as though a posse of talented artists had been following us. Pissarro's river landscape reminded us of our walk along the Seine; Monet's Rouen panorama recalled our picnic on the Côte Sainte-Catherine; and other paintings depicted streets where we had eaten croissants and sipped espresso.
When had anyone chronicled my meanderings in such high style? It didn't matter that I hadn't taken pictures; practically every scene we'd seen over the previous two days was in the exhibition catalog.