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Normandy Impressionist Festival: Andre Malraux Museum at Le Havre

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It is impossible to write about the impressionist art inside the museums of Normandy without describing the natural beauty and scenes from everyday life that inspired the works of art.

To see variations of light dancing on the flint arches and eye-of-the-needle openings of Etretat's white cliff's, after having seen Monet's painting of those gleaming cliffs, doubled my appreciation of both. To witness the beauty of riders on horseback sauntering on the beach at Deauville under a rose-gold sunset; and later, to see Degas' exquisite drawings of horses enhanced my memory of both.

The Normandy Impressionist Festival www.impressionistm-normandy.com is designed to create experiences like these--to help us see the relationship between the region and the masterpieces it inspired.

Le Havre

The relationship between Normandy's natural beauty and Impressionism is brilliantly demonstrated at the Malraux Museum in Le Havre. The contemporary-designed, glass and steel museum faces--and seems to rise up from--the sea. Indeed, the museum has a long, high wall of glass that not only faces the sea, but makes the sea an integral part of the museum interior.

After I viewed the impressionist exhibition at the Malraux Museum, I looked through the mesh screen on the glass wall onto the sea. What I saw was a revelation. Sunlight seemed to break into sparkling stars on the water and, filtered by the screen, the scene look like an impressionist painting. For the first time, I had a sense of seeing the play of light on water as an impressionist painter must have seen it.

Built in 1961, the Malraux Museum was named in honor of author and statesman, Andre Malraux, Charles de Gaulle's first Minister of Cultural Affairs (also known to Americans as the man who brought the Mona Lisa to the United States). Today, thanks to the Senn Collection, the Malraux Museum possesses the finest collection of impressionist art in France outside Paris.

Olivier Senn, a cotton trader, collected the paintings and drawings of Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas and those who followed including Bonnard, Matisse and Derain among others; and in 2004, his granddaughter gave his considerable collection to the Malraux Museum.

Claude Monet moved to Le Havre when he was five-years-old and later, it was his summer home. The artist most indelibly associated with Le Havre, though, is Raoul Dufy who was born there in 1877. In 1963, Dufy's widow donated seventy of his works--from his impressionist and fauvism periods to the end of his life--to the Museum of Le Havre, now the Malraux Museum.

I must confess that I have been a Dufy aficionado for a long time--his work is sleek yet lively, sophisticated yet playful, and deceptively simple. The shades of blue in his The Beach and Jetty of Le Havre made me feel that I was seeing the color blue for the first time. Although the figures of people in his paintings are rendered in black outlines, the way he paints the tilt of a head, arms crossed, the slant of a back, or an elbow resting on a railing--brings each figure to life.

Dufy's The Painter's Studio of Red Sculpture --with a wrought iron balcony, palm tree and blue sky partially visible through a French window; a large, unfinished canvas on an easel; a grand mirror with a gilt frame seen in the next room though an open door--and the red sculpture of a woman on a pedestal--transported me inside Dufy's studio and I did not want to leave.

As part of the Normandy Impressionist Festival, the Malraux Museum is featuring an exhibition, Degas Unseen that will be open until September 19th. The exhibition includes more than sixty masterpieces by Degas, forty-seven of them from the museum's Senn Collection, and fifteen on special loan from the Musee d'Orsay. Among the works are paintings done when Degas was young. These early works depict such historical scenes as Semiramis Building Babylon and Jephte's Daughter, and are a far cry from the real life paintings of ballet dancers of his later work. In contrast to these early paintings, the Degas exhibition includes two pastels of a woman bathing, his studies of horse and horses and riders, portraits, and a rare watercolor landscape. Through the paintings and drawings, the exhibition traces Degas' evolution as an artist.

Le Havre, the largest city in Normandy, has an interesting history. Bombed to ashes during the Second World War, it was reconstructed as quickly as possible to house the thousands who were homeless in the war's aftermath. Today Le Havre's city center is the first twentieth century urban site in Europe to be placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

For information about the Normandy Impressionist Festival, Le Havre, and the Andre Malraux Museum, go to www.franceguide.com/us