Normandy and the dawn of Impressionism

The Norman weather irritated Monet – but its impact was huge, as John Lichfield discovers at a new festival in Rouen
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In 1892, a painter with a flowing beard installed himself in a women's underwear shop opposite Rouen cathedral and attempted to invent modern art. The shop's customers were annoyed by this intrusion into a delicately female world. After many complaints, Claude Monet – at the height of his celebrity and self-esteem – had to hide behind a screen.

The great painter rapidly became as irritated as the shop's customers. In early 1892, and again in 1893, he set out to revolutionise painting by attempting 30 different versions of the elaborate façade of Rouen cathedral. The complexity of his self-appointed task, and the fickleness of the Norman weather, almost drove him crazy. "It's getting worse and worse," he wrote despairingly on one occasion. "At 9am there was hail. Then, in 10-minute intervals all day long, we had a procession of rain, sun and snow."

What did Monet expect from Rouen in March? He spent most of his childhood in Le Havre. He knew exactly what Norman weather was like. Even in summer, as the light dims and shifts, Norman landscapes can become several different landscapes in one day or one hour.

An extraordinary festival which begins this month, and continues until September – probably the most elaborate art festival ever organised in France – includes 200 exhibitions and events in 100 Norman towns or villages. The festival, Normandie Impressioniste, seeks to make the case that Impressionism, so often associated with Paris, was a movement largely rooted and shaped in the towns and fields and coasts – and the weather – of Normandy.

Jacques-Sylvain Klein, general director of the festival, says there are many ways in which Normandy can be claimed as the cradle of Impressionism. Several of the great Impressionist painters and their predecessors – Monet, Degas, Corot, Boudin – were Norman or had Norman connections. The movement can be traced, partly, to the influence of the great British painter, J M W Turner, who painted a series of watercolours of Norman town, land and riverscapes in the 1830s.

Impressionism was, in part, a desire to take painting out of the studio and into the open air. Where better to go than Normandy, which was beautiful, reasonably close to Paris and easily reached by the river Seine and, after the 1840s, by train? The painting that gave Impressionism its name, Monet's Impression Sunrise, was painted at Le Havre on the Norman coast.

But there is also a more existential connection, Mr Klein told The Independent. He believes that the elusive beauty of Normandy – Norman skies, Norman light, Norman weather – helped to generate the very idea of Impressionism.

"The light of southern France is magnificent but relentless and predictable," he said. "The light of Normandy is ever-changing. Impressionism is about the instantaneous, about "fugacité" – the fleeting. How to capture the essence of the passing moment. In that sense, Impressionism is quintessentially Norman. When Monet painted the façade of Rouen cathedral, he worked on up to 14 different canvasses at one time."

The Normandie Impressioniste festival was the idea of the Norman politician and former French prime minister, Laurent Fabius, and his friend and one-time colleague, Mr Klein. The intention is to assert the Norman paternity of Impressionism but also to generate popular support for the "unification" of the two Norman regions, upper and lower, created by President François Mitterrand in the 1980s. "By involving the whole of Normandy we are pointing to the great mistake that was made in dividing Normandy into two regions," said Mr Klein. "The festival is a way of saying that the reunification of Normandy, now under consideration, is not something that will be achieved by politicians alone. It will be created by the cooperation of Norman towns and Norman people."

The festival is also a recognition that France has somewhat ignored its Impressionist painters in recent years, despite their immense and enduring popularity in other countries. "We are rediscovering Impressionism, which has been a bit forgotten in France, unlike Japan and the United States," the former prime minister, Mr Fabius, said.

The festival, vast in itself, is the hors d'oeuvre for a large Monet retrospective – the first in France for many years – at the Grand Palais in Paris this autumn and winter.

Normandie Impressioniste, which

lasts until September, includes art exhibitions but also concerts, plays, films, sound and light shows, picnics ("déjeuners sur l'herbe"), riverside dances and guided walks. Almost every Norman community of any size – and some very small ones – will play a part in the festival which stretches over 125 miles from Dieppe to Cherbourg, via Rouen, Honfleur, Lisieux and Caen.

The piéce de résistance is an ambitious exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen, which has assembled, from all over the world, 130 works painted in the town by artists from Turner to Monet to Gauguin to Pissarro. In many cases, the canvasses, or watercolours, have returned to their place of birth for the first time in over 100 years.

Two Turner watercolours lent by the Tate Gallery in London have rarely been seen in public. They are too fragile to be placed on permanent display at the Tate. They show the cathedral façade in 1832, 60 years before Monet attempted it, and a riverscape which makes early 19th-century Rouen look like Venice painted by Tintoretto.

The exhibition's greatest coup is to have assembled 11 of the 31 Rouen cathedral façades painted by Monet in 1892 and 1893. The curator of the exhibition, and director of all the Rouen museums, Laurent Salomé, says he fears that this could be the last time that so many canvasses in the cathedral series will be shown together. "They are growing increasingly fragile and it is becoming harder to persuade museums and private owners to loan them," he told The Independent.

The cathedral sequence – which followed other Monet series on haystacks and preceded his interminable water-lilies – is regarded by some art historians as his master work. "Monet knew that he was a genius," Mr Salomé said. "With his cathedral paintings, he set out to do something quite different from what he or others had done before."

"The other impressionists, although revolutionary in their way, were still mostly interested in finding beautiful subjects and painting them beautifully ... With the cathedrals, Monet was exploring the act of painting itself. The subject – the Gothic cathedral – fades into the background. In that way, he is preparing the way for modern art."

The other great coup of the exhibition is to have brought together – from Toronto, from Birmingham, from Karlsruhe, from New York, from Pittsburgh and from Mexico – eight of the celebrated series of Rouen bridges painted by another Impressionist master, Camille Pissarro, in 1896-98.

The series was Pissarro's homage, and riposte, to Monet's cathedrals. Pissarro was an anarchist, humanist and modernist. Where Monet's cathedral paintings are abstract, Pissarro's canvasses teem, Brueghel-like (or Lowry-like) with human activity: pedestrians, horse-drawn traffic, ships and factory chimneys.

Factory chimneys? What is beautiful about factory chimneys? "This is one of the oddities of Impressionism, something that people sometimes forget," said Mr Salomé. "It is not all poppies. There are also many chimneys in Monet paintings. Impressionism was a form of realism... The painters believed that beauty should be found in the world as it was."

This was another reason why Normandy – and especially Rouen – became an Impressionist mecca from the 1870s onwards. Rouen, also the home of the greatest French 19th century novelist, Gustave Flaubert, developed from a picturesque, medieval cathedral town into an industrial powerhouse, inland port and railway cross-roads.

To Monet and Pissarro, and a quartet of lesser-known local Impressionists now much collected in the United States, Rouen was a symbol of a changing world. Like Impressionism itself, the town fused the beauty of the old and the energy of the new.

Another hundred years on, Rouen has been scarred by an unnecessary bombardment by the RAF in 1944 and a post-war, industrial sprawl that even Pissarro might have found unappetising. The cathedral, the bridges and much of the beauty and energy remain. So does the weather.

Official website in English: en/page/8416/presentation