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What does architect Antoine Grumbach have in common with Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro? For the record, Antoine Grumbach is one of the ten architects invited by President Sarkozy in 2009 to come up with projects for a future “Grand Paris”. Remarkably, his “Grand Paris” is a blueprint of the territory the Impressionist artists had carved for themselves, cutting deep into Normandy, along the Seine, past Rouen to its estuary at Le Havre, the natural port of Paris, Grumbach claims.
If Grumbach’s boundaries of Paris are debatable, so is the birth place of Impressionism, usually situated in Paris, in 1874, the year of their official grouping and first independent exhibition at their friend and photographer Nadar’s studio, on the Boulevard des Capucines. This is also when they were first designated as Impressionists, inadvertently, by Louis Leroy in his deriding review in Le Charivari, alluding to Monet’s painting Impression, Soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise).
However, some art historians date the birth of Impressionism back to 1863, when Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Picnic on the Grass) burst the scene at the Salon des Réfusés. The year also coincided with the gatherings of the avant-garde around their elder Manet at the Café Guérbois, on the High Street of Batignolles (now avenue de Clichy), a cheap enough suburb where many of them took up residence, yet close enough to the wealthy vicinity of Parc Monceau, then referred to as la Plaine Monceau. Hence their early name, l’Ecole or Groupe des Batignolles and a critic’s deriding comment on the Spanish influence he detected in Manet’s work, “Don Manet y Courbetos y Zurbanan de los Batignolles.”
Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe is situated vaguely in the Bois de Boulogne and thereby in Paris, but Impression, soleil levant was painted in Le Havre, in 1872, placing Monet in the lineage of the early 19th-century seascape painters of the Norman Coast, Eugene-Louis Boudin and the Dutch Johan Jongkind notably, both of whom took Monet along to paint on site directly from the landscape. There was a string of others – Eugène Isabey, Paul Huet, Xavier Leprince, and also Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet… the English Richard Parkes Bonington, not to mention JMW Turner, often regarded as the father of Impressionism.
In short, Paris and Normandy generated Impressionism in tandem on the very territory marked out by Grumbach for the “Grand Paris”. The Norman coast allowed them to explore the ever-changing fluidity of light, whilst Haussmann provided them with opportunities to capture the dazzling (or fragmented) light of his remodeled city.
The advent of the railway facilitated the liaison between the two poles, opening to the artists the best of both worlds, both for pleasure and for work. Armed with portable paint tubes and easels, they departed from the Saint-Lazare station to the suburbs lying west of Paris and to Normandy beyond, where they painted the domesticated daily world around, focusing on its evolution, on the industrialisation under way and on the budding leisure society with its open-air cafés (guinguettes) along the Seine or the beach resorts of Normandy, for example.
This fascinating and exciting page of French history and history of art is celebrated in the exceptional Normandie Impressionniste Festival held all over the region through the summer. Among the highlights of the Festival is the exceptional exhibition held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen – “A City for Impressionism” where exceptional (and rarely if ever seen) paintings of Rouen by Monet, Pissarro and Gauguin have been brought together, including 11 of Monet’s series of its cathedral and astonishing Pissarros of its bridges.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts of Caen holds a unique exhibition of Impressionist prints, the Musée Malraux in Le Havre displays unpublished works by Degas from the Senn Collection, and on and on, a unique opportunity to see so many extraordinary works brought together from all corners of the world, many from private collections.
And while the Musée Eugène Boudin in Honfleur enables the visitor to retrace Impressionism to its forerunners, the marine painters, a plethora of contemporary works – photographies, videos and various installations carry Impressionism forward, making this a living festival rather than a fossilised homage to the past, involving in the programmes schools and universities.
Readings from related literary works (in French, I am afraid), walks along the Impressionists’ trails, a giant picnic on the grass (a 24km-long red-and-white gingham table cloth has been made for the occasion) and entertainment in recreated guinguettes along the Seine, various performances, concerts of related classical music (Debussy, Fauré, Bizet, Saint-Saëns), the list seems endless. If you are coming to Paris this summer, I invite you to surf the web for the full head-spinning programme and to make sure you detour to Normandy whilst you are here.
Impressionist Normandy will take place simultaneously in dozens of cities, towns, and villages in Upper and Lower Normandy from June through September 2010. For specifics, please visit the event’s official web site:
Around and About Paris has been universally acclaimed as the best travel companion to Paris, Romantic Paris as the most exquisite, and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia as a revelation.
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