Everyone seems to know that Paris was the heart of the art world in the 19th century. However, what many people do not seem to know is that impressionism did not start in Paris but in a small port town in Normandy (more of that later!).
Normandy seemed to draw the artists from all over France. Artists like Raoul Dufy, Alfred Sisley, Eugene Boudin, Edouard Manet & Berthe Morisot to name a few, were drawn to the beauty of Normandy. They filled their canvases with paintings of the seaside villages, the beautiful white cliffs of the Alabaster Coast and the life of Normandy during the 19th century
As a result, Normandy has a rich artistic history.
In the Footsteps of the Impressionists in Normandy
There are many beautiful sites to visit in Normandy. However the four major places that are significant to the impressionism painters are:
- Honfleur – The small village where Impressionism actually started
- Etretat on the Alabaster coast. The brilliant white cliffs were the subject of many canvases painted by Monet and other French painters
- Giverny- the quaint village where Claude Monet lived for over 40 years
- Le Havre – The seaside city that houses an impressive Impressionism art museum- MuMa and is the birth town of the post-impressionist, Raoul Dufy
The Medieval Port Town – Honfleur
Most art historians agree that Honfleur is the birthplace of impressionism.
Eugene Boudin a Honfleur painter recognized the talent of a young man called Claude Monet. He offered to mentor him in his hometown, Honfleur. There he taught Monet to paint outside (plein-air painting) and capture the changing light on his canvas.
This was a totally new concept. Monet fell in love with nature and his style changed. He painted with brighter colors and painted the nature around him….. Impressionism was conceived (although it still did not have a name)!
Today, the main attraction of Honfleur is that time seems to have stopped. You feel like you are still in the 19th century or even earlier!
Honfleur is a charming medieval port village. Over a century ago, ship owners made their wealth from trading at sea. The wealthy ship owners built high-rised homes for their families, packed tightly together around the Vieux Bassin, the center of the port.
Today, this port no longer receives the commercial ships or fishing boats, but the mega-yachts and fancy sailboats of the wealthy.
The town’s main square is the heart of the village. From the square, narrow cobbled-alleyways diverge in all directions. The views everywhere in this town are picture perfect. Almost like an Impressionism painting.
The old time French charm is seen everywhere, from the narrow old Norman style half-timbered houses, to the small food stores selling local wares and to the small cafes & restaurants dotted throughout the village. This place is a picturesque gem.
The Eugene Boudin Museum
There is a wonderful small and unassuming art museum in Honfleur called The Eugene Boudin Museum. This museum is situated in the old quarter of Honfleur. It primarily showcases artworks of the Honfleur school of painting and also landscape paintings of the Normandy area. You will see some early Monet paintings here as well.
The White Chalk Cliffs of Etretat
The Etretat white cliffs are stunning. When you see them, you will understand why so many artists gravitated to this beach for creative inspiration.
“Etretat is becoming more and more amazing. Now is the real moment: the beach with all its fine boats; it is superb, and I am enraged not to be more skillful in rendering all this. I would need two hands and hundreds of canvases” -Quote Claude Monet-
Etretat is located on the Alabaster Coast in Upper Normandy. It is 20 kilometers north of Le Havre and a two hour drive from Paris.
The beach isn’t large but at each end you will see two majestic white chalk cliffs. They are natural wonders!
The Etretat town is also worth visiting, but to be honest, it is the grand cliffs and beach that brings the masses of visitors from near and afar.
Things to do and see in Etretat
To see the views from above, there is a wonderful trail to the top of the cliffs. It is a steep and strenuous hike up but once you reach the top, you are rewarded with the BEST views. It is highly recommended to hike up both cliffs as you get to see different views from each cliff.
Walk along the Promenade on Etretat Beach
A leisurely stroll along the promenade is wonderful. Along the way, you will see German bunkers built into the rock, a sad reminder of the German occupation during WW2. There are great signs providing the visitor with historical information about this beach during WW2 and Etretat’s past. It is really interesting, even if you are not a history buff!
Take a Swim in the Blue Sparkling Sea!
In the summer, there is nothing more refreshing than taking a dip in the sea. All the beaches along the Normandy coast are pebble beaches, so not so comfortable for sunbaking on…
Note: In the summer months of July and August, and particularly on the weekends, Etretat beach is choc-a-block with locals and tourists! So if want to visit then, I suggest that you get there early and beat the crowds!
Le Havre city houses the impressive Museum of Modern Art – André-Malraux (MuMa).
This museum showcases one of the best collections of the Impressionists in the world. If you love impressionism, this museum should not be missed! All the great painters like Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Dufy to name a few are here….
There is also a wonderful permanent exhibition of the Normandy born artist and forerunner to impressionism, Eugene Boudin.
Another HUGE bonus is that this museum is not crowded like the Musee D’Orsay in Paris and sometimes when visiting midweek and in low season, you can have all the impressionists entirely to yourself!!
Giverny – Monet’s House & Magnificent Gardens
Finally, one of the most famous attractions in Normandy is the magnificent house and gardens of Monet in Giverny. When following the impressionists, this place is a MUST!
Today, Monet’s house and gardens are open to the public. In the gardens you will feel like you are walking inside a Monet painting. You will see all the iconic subjects of so many of his most famous paintings – the beautiful green Japanese bridge, the famous pond full of water lilies and colorful and fragrant flowers and fauna… a feast for the senses.
“My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.”
―Quote Claude Monet ―
The house is also beautiful and full of old time charm. In one room there is even a display of some Monet paintings. However the gardens are the main attraction and draw more than half a million visitors every year.
The Impressionists certainly had an eye for beauty and it is no wonder that they fell in love with Normandy.
Blurb about me:I am Jeanette, 55 years old a huge lover of art, travel, hiking, reading and my wonderful family. I have written a blog combining travel, art and reading! Have a peak www.itravelwithart.com