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Making a Wonderful Impression
Normandy Coast, France
by Sarah Shuckburgh

The multi-hued skies of the Normandy coast inspired a group of painters who changed the way we see the world. Sarah Shuckburgh follows their steps.

Normandy skies never stay the same for long. One minute, cotton-wool clouds float beneath a pale blue dome and the Channel shimmers in chalky greens; the next, ominous grey wisps gather into louring mountains over an inky horizon. Landscape artists discovered this coast from the 1820s - Huet and Isabey, Turner, Cotman, Corot, Bonington, Delacroix, Troyon, Millet, Courbet and Mozin. But later these vast, changeable skies inspired artists such as Boudin and Monet to abandon conservative methods and to experiment with sketchy brushstrokes and patches of colour, to capture transient sensations of wind, vibrations of light, reflections, shadows and movement - spontaneous impressions which developed into a new genre of art.

I decide to explore the coast where impressionism began. My husband Guillaume was brought up near Dieppe and knows Normandy well, so he's a useful companion.

We start in Le Havre, childhood home of Boudin and Monet, and make for the Musée Malraux, with France's biggest collection of impressionist paintings after the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Coastal masterpieces include Monet's pink 'Cliffs at Varengeville', Manet's 'Boats at Sunset' and two studies of Le Havre by Pissarro, as well as works by Troyon, Corot, Daubigny, Renoir and Jongkind. The museum owns hundreds of small, luminous paintings by Boudin, who paved the way towards impressionism.

Each captures a gust of wind, a sky at dusk or dawn, a storm brewing, cliffs in sunshine or shadow. Boudin, whom Corot called 'King of the Skies', painted out of doors, and always noted the exact time of day and the direction of the wind.

The artists exhibited in Paris, and almost overnight quiet Normandy fishing villages were colonised by the haute-bourgeoisie who arrived on newly built railways, erected ostentatious villas facing the sea, and paraded along boardwalks which became the 'summer boulevards of Paris'.

The railway reached Le Havre in 1858, and the town soon became a fashionable resort, but alas, few villas survived the Allied bombs which flattened the town in 1944. We walk along the promenade to neighbouring Sainte Adresse, where Monet's aunt had a house (destroyed in the war) and where Monet painted many of his early beach scenes. As we turn back, the sky turns from hazy grey to thunderous purple, and clouds pile up above a horizon of startling yellow. Suddenly torrential rain falls, and we scuttle under the eaves of a beach hut. Minutes later, the rain stops, the black clouds move on and the promenade gleams beneath a streaky blue and pink sky.

It was in Le Havre that Boudin met the teenage Monet, and persuaded him to stop producing caricatures and take up painting landscapes 'en plein air'. The Musée Malraux stands near the spot where Monet painted his 'Impression, soleil levant', a work which provoked ironic and dismissive criticism when it was first shown - and was the source of the initially disparaging term 'impressionist'. According to Guillaume, Monet had poor eyesight, but refused to wear glasses.

Leaving Le Havre, we cross the Seine on the striking Pont de Normandie and drive along the left bank to Honfleur. This medieval town - where Dubourg and Boudin were born - was miraculously untouched by the Allied bombardment. The old port survives, with a maze of narrow cobbled streets of half-timbered and slate-fronted houses. The Musée des Beaux Arts, founded in 1868 by Dubourg, is now the Musée Boudin, with a magical collection of Boudin's small masterpieces, as well as works by Dubourg, Huet, Courbet, Isabey, Mozin, Jongkind, Cals and Monet.

Several pastel studies by Boudin feature the Ferme Saint Siméon, a 17th century house on the slopes of the Côte de Grace above Honfleur. Between 1825 and 1865, la mère Toutain welcomed artists to her auberge, often accepting paintings in lieu of rent. Her guests included Isabey, Corot, Courbet, Bazille, Daubigny, Troyon, Cals, Dubourg, Sisley and Jongkind, as well as Boudin and Monet - and the inn is thus intricately linked to the birth of impressionism Today Saint Siméon is a smart hotel, where we tuck into delicious oysters and a marmite de poissons.

Rain lashes against the windows, but the view is still spectacular - a vast, glittering panorama of estuary and sky.

We drive west through the wooded slopes of the 'Corniche Normande' to Trouville, the oldest resort on the Côte Fleurie. Corot, Isabey, Bonington and Mozin painted the coast here from the mid 1820s, attracting the first holiday villas. The fad for therapeutic sea-bathing spread here from Dieppe in 1837, and Trouville became the 'Queen of Beaches', with segregated sections for men and women, and wheeled bathing machines which trundled into the sea. During the 1860s, Boudin began to paint holidaymakers at Trouville, creating, over the next 30 years, a new genre for the Parisian flâneur - the 'crinoline beach', with bourgeois figures set against sea and sky.

Monet married at Trouville in 1870, and painted a portrait of his new wife and Madame Boudin under parasols, dishevelled by the wind. The canvas is still speckled with grains of sand. He also painted the Hôtel des Roches Noires, which, like most hotels along this coast, fell into disrepair during the Second World War, and is now divided into flats.

Trouville remains pleasantly low-key and unpretentious, with a maze of tiny streets, lively quayside restaurants and an unspoilt beachfront of half-timbered villas (saved from development by far-sighted mayors). Not so Deauville, its flashy neighbour across the river Touques, with luxury hotels and nightclubs, race courses, designer shops and beautiful people strolling along the famous wooden boardwalk. Deauville became a resort 30 years later than Trouville, after a visit in 1859 by the Duc de Morny, half brother of Napoleon III. But, as Courbet, Boudin and Monet supplied the Parisian haute-bourgeoisie with paintings, Deauville quickly became the capital of the Normandy Riviera. It was here that Boudin died in 1898.

Beyond Deauville, the Calvados coast has long beaches of smooth sand, backed by the wooded hills, narrow lanes, hedges and cider orchards of the Pays d'Auge. The sun comes out as we drive past the 19th century beach-front villas of Blonville and Bénerville, to Villers-sur-mer, which until the 1850s was a hamlet linked to Trouville by a footpath through woods and dunes. The tide is low, and we walk beneath crumbling black cliffs- the Falaises des Vaches Noires (fancifully likened to black cows) which are studded with fossils 150 million years old. Huet and Troyon were among the first to paint this part of the coast. Caillebotte, wealthy benefactor of impressionists, also painted here.

The first holiday villa, built in 1854, now houses the tourist office and fossil museum. The church, enlarged twenty years later to accommodate summer crowds, has stained glass windows paid for by wealthy Parisians.

Next we stroll along Houlgate's attractive seafront, lined with villas in the quirky Anglo-Norman style, with half-timbering, gables, turrets, towers and fancy coloured brickwork. As we reach Cabourg, a stately Second Empire resort built in a fan shape around its casino, the vast sky fades into the sea in mottled smudges of blue.

Now we drive north, to the windy Côte d'Albâtre, with its dramatic chalk cliffs towering above steeply shelved pebble beaches. Etretat boasts Normandy's most famous rock formation - a massive headland ending in the Porte d'Aval 'elephant' arch and solitary 200-foot needle. The little town was once a racy resort, with non-segregated bathing. The scenery and the ethereal light attracted many artists, including Corot, Courbet and Boudin. Monet produced a series of paintings - of which six survive - capturing light, wind, waves and weather at different times of day.

Here we see our most miraculous skies yet - above a gleaming horizon, layers of plum-coloured clouds are pierced by golden shafts of sun. As the storm approaches, holidaymakers huddle under umbrellas, but out to sea, sunlight glitters on vivid green waves.

Back on the windswept plateau of the Pays de Caux, an immense rainbow fills the eastern sky. All along the Alabaster coast, thickly wooded hanging valleys lead down to shingle inlets, and we follow one down to Yport, where Renoir painted the beach at low tide. As clouds scud overhead, bringing alternate sprinkles of rain and pools of silvery sunshine, we reach Fécamp, seaside resort and cod-fishing port painted by Monet and many others, including Manet and Berthe Morisot.

At Varengeville, several lush valleys cut through high, crumbling cliffs, and here (on Guillaume's favourite beach) Monet first experimented with transient impressions, starting a new canvas whenever the light changed. The next seaside village, Pourville, is where Monet lived and painted before moving to Giverny.

We end our voyage de découverte in Dieppe, Normandy's oldest resort, where the Duchesse de Berry first adopted the English passion for sea-bathing in 1822. The English artist Bonington encouraged Turner and Delacroix to paint here, and later, although fashionable Parisians deserted Dieppe for Trouville, other artists followed, including Boudin and Monet, Whistler, Gauguin, Pissarro, Sickert, Degas and Renoir. We trudge along the beach, and when it starts to rain Guillaume photographs me, dishevelled like Madame Monet (but older, and under an umbrella instead of a parasol). Then we head for the clifftop Château Musée, with its magical paintings of Dieppe by Sickert, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Isabey, Daubigny. My favourite is Boudin's luminous painting of chalk cliffs beneath a blustery sky of dappled white, pale blue and grey.

As we emerge, and head for a restorative Calvados in the Café des Tribunaux - frequented by artists throughout the 19th century - the chalk cliffs are gleaming with an ethereal light, beneath a blustery sky of dappled white, pale blue and grey.

First published by the Telegraph

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