Seine River is star of first Impressionist festival

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The Independent Culture

Monet lived near it, Caillebotte sailed on it and any number of them likely spent time in the picturesque cafes along its banks.

Now one museum in France has set out to show how France's iconic River Seine was one of the Impressionist painters' greatest influences.

As France gears up for its first major homage to Impressionism, the Giverny Museum in Normandy north of Paris has opened an exhibit featuring work by a list of Impressionists to illustrate the connection, but it goes beyond that as well.

It also captures a time when the Seine, which bisects Paris and cuts through the French countryside before emptying into the English Channel, saw its bucolic setting transformed in many areas by industrialisation.

Such changes not only altered the landscape and the lives of those living there, but also fired the imaginations of the painters, said Marina Ferretti, the exhibit's curator.

"The Seine was able to become the birthplace of new painting in the second half of the 19th century because it was an area for all innovations," said Ferretti.

For the Impressionists, most of whom painted in the mid-to-late 1800s, the combination of industry and leisure along the Seine proved to be a rich source of inspiration, she said.

"It is life itself that they wanted to describe, and in their paintings the clear silhouette of a walker or a pleasure boat's sparkling sail often gives way to a background of factory smokestacks and metal bridges," the curator said.

There was the light as well, of course, and its reflection off the water that surely left its mark on the painters who would change art forever.

The some 50 paintings gathered at the museum serve as a prelude to an Impressionist festival beginning in June throughout Normandy which will also cover music, literature, theatre and cinema.

There will be a Claude Debussy opera, a major art show in Rouen with 100 key works on display as well as 19th-century-style riverside balls and open-air picnics.

Among the paintings on display at Giverny are masterpieces from Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edouard Manet and Gustave Caillebotte.

The oldest works, including those by Theodore Rousseau and dating to 1832, depict a wild river with sandy banks surrounded by greenery.

But as time passes, the idyllic scenes are replaced by those with factories along increasingly populated river banks. Stone bridges become metal ones, rowboats disappear in favour of barges.

The exhibit, which runs until July 18, wraps up with works from Fauvist painters Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck and Othon Friesz, showing how they, too, were drawn to the Seine before heading for the sunny Mediterranean.

Ferretti said the Impressionists involved themselves completely "in a new world that was sketching itself, hedonistic and confident in the virtues of progress."

She points out that the railroad's arrival in the 19th century in the cities of Rouen and Le Havre - both located along the Seine - also helped make the river a playground for the Impressionists.

They frequented the cafes along the Seine and some participated in water sports, including Caillebotte who became president of the sailing club in the town of Petit Gennevilliers.

And several chose to make their home near the river, including perhaps the best-known Impressionist, Monet, whose house in Giverny included the famous garden that was the inspiration for much of his work.

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