06/28/2010 08:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Normandy: Birthplace of Impressionism Celebrated this Summer

One year ago, I was in Normandy covering the ceremonies commemorating the sixty-fifth anniversary of D-Day, marveling at the achievements of the Allied forces in 1944 that battled across Normandy, not only on June 6, but throughout that summer of liberation into September. This year, I find myself under the luminous Norman skies once again; this time, to celebrate -- and marvel at -- this historic region's distinct artistic contribution to the world -- Impressionism.

Normandie Impressionniste

Normandy, along the northern coastline of France facing the English Channel, is the birthplace of the artists known to the world as the Impressionists. This summer, in a festival entitled Normandie Impressionniste, the entire Normandy region is paying homage to the artists who lived and worked here, and to the artists and places that inspired them. From June until September 6, museums, galleries, programs, performances, hotels and restaurants from Caen, the capital of Haute Normandie, to Rouen, the capital of Basse Normandie have come together to honor the Impressionists and their timeless legacy.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the region's land and seascapes -- illuminated by Normandy's incomparable light -- attracted artists like Eugene Boudin and Claude Monet and influenced their revolutionary approach to painting. Transcending what was "acceptable" as great art during the late nineteenth century, these artists painted their "impressions" as revealed by natural light; capturing light on canvas as photography captures light to create a photograph, the Impressionists enable us to "see" light. "Normandie Impressionniste" traces how such artists as Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Cassatt and Sisley developed their unique approach to painting and, in so doing, cleared the way for art of the twentieth century from pointillism to fauvism, from cubism to abstract expressionism.

Rather than offer you a brief catalogue synopsis of each exhibition, I've decided to write about one Normandy Impressionist exhibition or scene at a time, beginning in this piece, with the Eugene Boudin Museum in Honfleur. If you are in Europe and are interested in visiting any of the towns, villages, or museums in Normandy, you can reach them easily by Eurorail.


In Honfleur, the Eugene Boudin Museum pays tribute to the cradle of Impressionism with the exhibition, "Honfleur, Between Tradition and Modernity," a collection of two hundred works including eighty paintings on loan from museums throughout France and Europe, including the Musee d'Orsay and the Musee du Petit Palais in Paris.

The exhibition includes the works of Boudin, Alexandre Dubourg, and the Dutch artist Johan-Barthold Jongkind, all of whom were mentors to Claude Monet. The picturesque fishing village of Honfleur with its medieval buildings, harbor and green hills attracted artists from France and England during the nineteenth century beginning with the Barbizon landscape painters, Camille Corot, Constant Troyon and Gustave Courbet among others. The Barbizon artists inspired the next generation, which included Boudin, Dubourg and Jongkind. As if they were harbingers of what was to come, Boudin, Dubourg, and Jongkind painted light reflected on Honfleur and the people who lived and vacationed there in a style that would later be taken to another level by Monet and other and set Impressionism apart from all that preceded it.

It was Boudin who encouraged, indeed, implored Monet to leave the studio and paint in the open air and Monet credits Boudin as his mentor, writing, "Je considere Eugene Boudin comme mon Maitre...Un jour Boudin me dit, '...Faites comme moi apprenez a bien dessiner et admirer la mer, la lumiere, le ciel bleu.' " ("I consider Eugene Boudin my master-teacher. One day Boudin told me, 'Work as I do, learn to draw well and to admire the sea, the light and the blue sky.' ")

I found it exciting to see Boudin's paintings and recognize in them the nascent steps toward Impressionism, to see the beginnings. Boudin's use of light in "Nuages Blancs" (1854-59) a painting four fifths sky and billowing clouds over a sliver of coastline and beach makes one want to swim in the sky; and also is a glimpse into the future of art.

As I looked at Boudin's paintings, I tried to imagine how they looked through the eyes of the young Monet and what a revelation this explosion of light must have been to him. Boudin's "Barque dans l'Estuaire" (1854-60) another rending of a vast, cloud-swept sky over a slim stretch of beach punctuated by a small boat's white sail, is almost abstract as Boudin captures the nuances of changing light. In his "La femme a l'ombrelle" (1880), it is the sandy beach that reflects the sunlight and shadow of one woman sitting under her umbrella, alone, with a soft blue sky enhanced by a slender line of deep blue sea on the horizon, in the background. Among the lesser known, but equally influential artists in the exhibition are Adolphe-Felix Cals, Paul Huet and Xavier Leprince.

Outside the rooms of the Musee Eugene Boudin, visitors can see Honfleur for themselves by strolling through the town, along the narrow, cobblestone streets, around the harbor with its boats bobbing and sails gleaming under the sun, and beneath the skies that inspired such glorious paintings.

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