River of Art
Not far from the village of Giverny, the
Seine flows into Normandy. It skirts
Upper Normandy’s capital, Rouen,
and finally pours into the sea at Le
Havre. The painter Claude Monet,
known as the father of impressionism,
grew up in Le Havre, worked in
Rouen, and later settled in Giverny.
Monet’s life, like those of several of
his peers, seems to have been bound
up with this river and its vast estuary.
It all started when Monet was a
teenager in Le Havre. There he met
another painter, Eugène Boudin, son of
a sailor and originally from Honfleur
across the estuary. Together they stud-
ied their surroundings, especially the
sunlight on the sea, morning mists, and
the haze of afternoon heat. Other
artists — the future great names of
impressionism — joined them.
The early impressionists were ded-
icated to painting in the open air,
taking inspiration from the real, chang-
ing world around them and, especially,
capturing on canvas the ethereal sub-
tleties of air, light, movement, and
color. The Musée des Beaux-Arts
(Museum of Fine Arts) in Rouen has
an excellent collection of their works.
Monet’s Giverny home has since
become a national monument, pre-
served much as it was more than a
century ago. The large garden at the
back is gloriously full of flowers. Cross
a little lane to reach the water garden
with wooden bridges spanning the
lily ponds that he painted time and
time again.
Later artists were equally inspired
by the Seine. Leading fauvists Raoul
Dufy and Othon Friesz, and the cubist
pioneer Georges Braque, all grew up in
Le Havre.
Their Le Havre was destroyed by
war in 1944, but the town was built
anew by a controversial modernist,
Auguste Perret, whose favorite mate-
rial was reinforced concrete. Nearly
identical apartment blocks form neat
lines along his parallel avenues and
squares. Perret’s masterpiece is the
landmark church of St. Joseph, with an
uncluttered interior colored by the
thousands of pieces of stained glass in
its lantern tower. Nearby stands the
Musée Malraux, the town’s fine arts
museum, which has the largest collec-
tion of impressionist works in France
outside Paris. Fittingly, it stands right
at the mouth of the River Seine.
Awash With History
Though there’s little sign of it now, the
wartime destruction that took its toll
on Le Havre wreaked havoc on all of
Normandy’s largest towns and ports.
The city of Caen, capital of Lower
Normandy, suffered as much as any-
where. On its northern edge, the
unmissable Memorial of Caen is a
huge modern museum giving a com-
prehensive, poignant, and utterly
fascinating overview of the causes of
World War II and its impact on Caen,
France, and the world.
It’s somehow poetic that many of
the Allied troops, whose Normandy
Invasion in June 1944 helped bring
World War II to an end, came from
Britain and the Commonwealth. That
puts them in a direct line of inheri-
tance from the Norman dukes under
William the Conqueror who crossed
the English Channel in the other direc-
tion in 1066.
William’s capital city was Caen, and
even now its main sights are his forti-
fied castle and the two fine Norman
abbeys — one for men and one for
women — that he had built at opposite
ends of the town. He was buried in the
church of the Men’s Abbey.
North and northwest of Caen are
the landing beaches where the soldiers
waded ashore under fire. Next to wide,
airy sands are many small memorials
and museums. In places, gaunt, broken
relics of the makeshift Mulberry har-
bors, which facilitated the supplying of
Allied troops after the invasion, can still
be seen, especially at Arromanches.
Along this very same stretch,
William the Conqueror mustered
his men and ships for the invasion
of England. William himself boarded
at Dives-sur-Mer, near Caen. The
Bayeux Tapestry tells the whole tale
of his victorious Norman Conquest
in cartoon-strip style — complete
with captions. The 900-year-old
“tapestry,” in fact a seamless 230-
foot embroidery, is beautifully
displayed in the Bayeux Tapestry
Museum in the center of Bayeux, a
charming, handsome old country
town just 6 miles inland.
Spring 2013 IntervalWorld.com
Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and many of the
other impressionists drew inspiration from
Rouen’s village scenes and grand cathedrals.
Levine and Walk Rouen
, pictured
above, is a fine example of this artistic form.
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