Following in the footsteps of master painters in Normandy
- Credit: Fondation Claude Monet
Normandy's stunning landscapes and landmarks have enchanted the paintbrushes of Monet and many other painters. Arts correspondent EMMA KNIGHTS finds out more about the region's role in the famous Impressionism art movement.
Monet's beautiful paintings of water lilies are famous the world over and displayed in major art museums across the globe, and it is in a little village in Normandy where these iconic works have their roots.
For it is in Giverny where the great artist fell in love with a farmhouse that was to become his family's home, and where he was to craft his wonderful gardens and lily ponds that were to inspire countless works.
Today his horticultural masterpiece remains a living canvas, forever-changing with the seasons, and entrancing huge numbers of art lovers and gardening enthusiasts alike every year.
I had long wanted to visit Giverny, and it was every bit as stunning as I imagined.
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Great care has been taken to preserve the artist's home and gardens - which are run by the Fondation Claude Monet - and they are an absolute delight to explore.
As our group wandered through the fragrant Clos Normand garden, full of beautiful bursts of colour and a kaleidoscope of different flowers at every turn, it was easy to see why Monet was so intensely captivated by the place he called home from 1883 until his death in 1926.
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Meanwhile walking over the famous bridges in the Water Garden was one of the most magical of moments as it truly felt as though you were stepping into one of Monet's lily pond paintings.
Inside his house we were treated to a glimpse of the man behind the paintbrush, with the striking interiors kept just as he designed them and paintings by Delacroix, Renoir, Cézanne and his other favourite artists adorning his bedroom walls.
Following our visit we took a stroll down the road and enjoyed lunch in the charming Ancien Hôtel Baudy where Monet would meet up with fellow painters such as Cézanne, Renoir and Rodin, and at the nearby Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny we learned more about the Impressionism art movement with which they were associated.
We were also able to visit Sainte-Radegonde Church where Monet is buried in a family grave covered in a myriad of flowers.
The whole Giverny experience was an education like no other into the life and work of Monet and a real highlight of my trip looking at Impressionism and Normandy.
The region is rightly proud of its connection to the art movement of which Monet is considered the master, and which in the 19th century saw artists reject classical French painting, take their easels outside their studios and into the open air, and experiment like never before with colour, movement and form.
Today Normandy's museums are full of Impressionist paintings and its landscapes dotted with scenes made famous by the artists. Our trip took us to Rouen, Étretat, Le Havre and Honfleur as well as Giverny, and it felt like these areas connected up to create one giant gallery of art.
Every three years the region also holds the Normandy Impressionist Festival which adds an extra dimension to the art movement's legacy. This year's runs until September 26, and Rouen - one of Norwich's twin cities - is hosting many festival events.
A medieval city with a labyrinth of historic streets to explore, Rouen is home to one of Monet's great inspirations – Rouen Cathedral - which he painted more than 30 times and which in 2016 is the canvas for an impressive nightly light show. We were left mesmerised by the colourful illumination which featured both an enchanting Impressionism-themed spectacle as well as a display inspired by the Vikings.
Meanwhile at the city's Musée des Beaux Arts, which houses one of the largest Impressionism collections outside of Paris, we saw one of the festival's key exhibitions - Scenes from Impressionist Life – and at Rouen's Théatre des Arts we enjoyed a festival concert featuring the sublime sounds of French clarinet player Paul Meyer and the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Rouen Normandie.
Like our fine city, Rouen is bursting with all kinds of history and culture and, in a slight diversion to our Impressionist trail, we visited one of Rouen's newest attractions – Rouen 1431 – which is an immersive visual spectacle on an epic scale. The 360 degree panorama, so big people can view it from a number of different levels, re-creates Rouen's 15th-century skyline and gives an insight into the life of Joan of Arc who is considered a national heroine in France for her victories in the Hundred Years War but who was burnt at the stake in Rouen in 1431.
From the city of Rouen to Normandy's stunning natural landscape, our Impressionist trip also took us to the majestic white cliffs at the town of Étretat on the Alabaster Coast.
As we enjoyed a bracing cliff-top walk, like the painters before us we marvelled at the breathtaking views of the sea and the wild and rugged sculptural forms carved by Mother Nature, from magnificent arches to the striking L'Aiguille (the Needle) that was captured in paint by Monet and other artists.
The final two places on our trail took us back to the beginning of Impressionism.
The coastal city of Le Havre, where Monet grew up, is where he met artist Eugène Boudin who first introduced him to landscape painting and who had a considerable influence on his career. It is also where in 1872 Monet was to create the harbour painting from which the whole art movement gets its name - Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise).
Today the city – listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site for its post Second World War architecture overseen by Auguste Perret – boasts of having one of the leading Impressionist collections in the André Malraux Museum of Modern Art (MuMa).
Set close to the coastline and harbour that attracted so many painters, the museum displays paintings by Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir and more, and it is home to the world's second biggest collection of works by Eugène Boudin. For this year's Normandy Impressionist Festival MuMa has gathered even more works for the exhibition Eugène Boudin: Craftsman in Light.
In nearby Honfleur, where Boudin was born, there is also the Musée Eugène Boudin named in honour of the artist seen as a forerunner to Impressionism.
Beautiful Honfleur is said to still look much as it did during the height of the Impressionism art movement when artists poured in from Paris to paint the port's ever-changing light.
Picture postcard perfect at every turn, with a lovely old harbour lined with restaurants and shops along with a maze of little streets and beautiful churches, it is a real gem of a place and like with all the other areas we visited on our Impressionism trail, it is a truly inspiring place to explore.
Following in the brush strokes of the Impressionist painters proved a wonderful way of discovering a truly delightful part of France.
• Normandy Impressionist Festival runs until September 26. Visit www.normandie-impressionniste.eu
• For more about places to visit in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website www.normandy-tourism.org
Emma travelled from Norwich to London by train with Abellio Greater Anglia and continued with another rail operator to Portsmouth.
The crossing from Portsmouth to Le Havre was with Brittany Ferries.
Visit www.brittany-ferries.co.uk and www.abelliogreateranglia.co.uk
In Rouen Emma stayed at Best Western Hôtel Littéraire Gustave Flaubert, a beautiful hotel inspired by the Rouen-born writer and ideally situated in the heart of the city.
In Le Havre Emma stayed at Hôtel Vent d'Ouest which has a wonderful nautical theme that complements its coastal location and a great spa.
In Étretat Emma experienced the ultimate in luxury at Domaine Saint Clair Le Donjon, a hotel created in a 19th-century Anglo-Norman style château and a seaside villa. The hotel has breathtaking views of the cliffs of Étretat and stunning rooms including the vast Sarah Bernhardt-inspired superior junior suite which features a personal Turkish bath and whirlpool bath. It also offers a simply superb gourmet dinner experience.
Visit www.hotelgustaveflaubert.com/en/, www.le-havre-hotel-france.com, and www.hoteletretat.com/en/