A dab of blue. Then several more. A hint of yellow, followed by a touch of red and brown. But oops, I'd overdone it. I raised my hand, and Edith, our infinitely patient art teacher, came to the rescue. As she blended in my maroon mess, rendering my painting a little less risible, she showed me the all-important technique of making brisk, firm brush strokes.
I was trying, vainly, to create my own "Monet".
With a group of eight, I was at an afternoon art class in Rouen. The objective was not so much to produce a painting as to gain some practical understanding of how Claude Monet worked – our session was, in effect, an entertaining exercise in how to be an Impressionist. Or not. For, paint brush in hand and colour out of control, you quickly realise what daunting talent Monet and fellow artists had.
We were on hallowed ground, attempting to capture the view of the western façade of Rouen cathedral from the very room in which the Father of Impressionism created his series of that building. Between 1892 and 1894 he produced 31 oils of this one view, sitting at the window on the second floor of a building then occupied by Rouen lingerie merchant Fernand Levy and his ladies – with Monet discreetly working behind a screen. Constructed in the 16th century as the House of the Exchequer, this ornate property is now home to the Rouen tourist board, with the ground floor functioning as the information centre and the seminal second-floor room a venue for special events as well as summer art classes.
I had come to Rouen on a trail of the Impressionists. To see the world's greatest collection of Impressionist works of art you visit the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. But to appreciate how this eternally crowd-pleasing art movement took shape, make a trip around Normandy, particularly the watery, eastern part. Most of all you'll be in the footsteps of Monet, but there are also many other late 19th-century artists who were drawn here, Pissarro, Sisley and Degas among them.
The ever-changing play of weather, water and light along the Normandy coast and through the Seine Valley was, of course, a prime inspiration. So, too, was Rouen itself, both ancient and newly industrial, bellowing great streams of smoke and steam in its newer quarters – which Pissarro in particular recorded. Today, in town and country, in many parts of Normandy you still look out on what the artists saw, and in some areas you can still, in effect, walk into their pictures. This summer there's a big added attraction, too: the first Normandy Impressionist Festival is taking place across the region until the end of September.
At any time of the year, a number of local art galleries display gems of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings that are among their permanent collections. For the next few months these are augmented by other works sought out from across the world and from rarely released archives in France.
Meanwhile, the spirit of that age is being revived in music and film shows around the province while many restaurants are offering Impressionist menus based on local ingredients or on dishes from the cookbook that Monet published.
Yet for all this summer's special effects and shows, one of the joys of coming here is in simply seeking out the Impressionist haunts. And there are plenty to choose from.
Rouen art class and entertainment over, I headed down the Seine to Le Havre. It was here that Monet painted the defining Impressionist view. His 1873 canvas of the harbour at dawn, a shadowy industrial blur behind the silhouette of a boat, was entitled Impression, Sunrise. It was because the critics scoffed at the title – and the picture – that Monet adopted the term Impressionist for the group of radical artists who were showing their works together.
My view of Le Havre was not at dawn but at sunset. I made for the affluent, elegant suburb of Sainte-Adresse and from a café terrace took in a pink-tinged panorama of the wide beach sweeping around the port town, with boats bobbing in the foreground.
Monet knew Le Havre well: he largely grew up there. And it was then, as now, a major port. But its very heart has changed completely. Today, most visitors to Normandy bypass Le Havre or beat a hasty retreat from the ferry terminal, keen to avoid this urban sprawl and its soulless pale-grey centre. Decimated in the Second World War, largely by Allied bombing, central Le Havre was rapidly rebuilt in reinforced concrete. In 2005, to the surprise of many, it was granted World Heritage status. So it is now preserved as a living monument to devastation and renewal. For that reason it is worth a detour, but there's more besides. Set by the port just beyond the concrete centre is the wonderful Musée Malraux. It is a treasure trove of Impressionist-era paintings containing, in particular, an entire wall hung with engaging studies of farm animals by Eugène Boudin, two striking works by Dufy, and one of Monet's many renditions of his water lilies.
Next stop Honfleur, on the coast just the other side of the Seine estuary from Le Havre. What a picture-postcard of place this ancient little harbour town is. No wonder Jongkind, Courbet, Bazille and others settled here. You can see their works at the Eugène Boudin museum a short walk from the centre. Boudin, who was born in Honfleur, set up in an art shop in Le Havre and it was there that he met the young Monet and took the teenager under his wing. It was Boudin who encouraged Monet to set up his easel outdoors and he frequently took him to paint at Honfleur in order to capture the near-magical quality of light there.
First thing on a summer morning, the charm of Honfleur is palpable but the town has become a victim of its own picturesque appeal and inevitably enormous crowds of tourists descend as the day wears on. Escaping the greatest number clustered at the cafés lining the inner harbour, I wandered Honfleur's tangle of flower-filled cobbled streets then explored its fabulous 15th-century wooden church, built by shipwrights and complete with a roof that from the inside looks like an upturned boat.
It was tempting to stay longer to see the eccentric Maisons Satie, the museum celebrating Erik Satie, the composer, who was born in Honfleur in 1866, and to visit the intriguing-sounding ethnographic gallery, housed in former salt warehouses; but there were many more Impressionist sights to take in further afield.
I moved on through calvados country passing apple orchards, stud farms and half-timbered manor houses en route to the resorts of Trouville and Deauville further west. Although only narrowly separated by the little River Touques, the two towns have retained distinct identities. Behind its beaches and seafront boardwalk, Trouville is a working fishing port dating back to at least the Middle Ages and it exudes a cheerfully bustling atmosphere.
Cross the river to Deauville and you've moved radically upmarket – suddenly you see Bentleys and Ferraris parked along the roads by the broad sandy beaches. Purpose-built as a glamorous getaway for the rich, Deauville is lined with opulent villas dating from the 1860s and vying with each other in grandeur and ornate flourishes.
Monet spent his honeymoon in Trouville in 1870 – taking paint brush and canvas along for good measure. But it was Boudin, more than the other artists of the time, who caught the prevailing mood and newly fashionable appeal of both resorts, painting numerous beach scenes as well as the opening of both Deauville's casino and the La Touques racecourse in 1864.
Today the dress code may be different – all those hats, hooped petticoats and flounces have been replaced by minimalist La Perla beachwear and Tallulah & Hope kaftans – but walk the wide sands here and you take in the views and breezy outlook that so attracted Monet's great mentor. V
C For a very different sea-scape I set off east to Etretat. The majestic cliffs just beyond this pretty little town are a geological wonderworld of luminous white walls, sea stacks and arches. Monet produced more than 80 pictures of the scenery here – a noticeboard at the beach marks the spot from where he painted the fishing boats that continued to ply these waters until 1990, pulled in and out of the water by shire horses. Strolling along the white-pebble beach here and following the footpath up and up to the cliff side, I watched clouds move across the china-blue sky like animated brush strokes, and stopped to gaze at the rapid dance of colours as the sea turned from azure to pinky green in the quickly changing light.
No Impressionist trip to Normandy would be complete without a visit to Giverny, so as a grand finale I headed inland to the house where Monet lived from 1883 until his death in 1926 – and, more importantly, to the garden that he created. You see so many photographs of Giverny and read so much about the place that you expect it to be familiar on arrival, but nothing can quite prepare you for the impact of the planting, the colours and the scents. Of course the show stealer is the water garden, now reached through a tunnel under the road. It is a visual poem of alders, willows, bamboos, irises and of course water lilies. "My garden," said Monet towards the end of his life, "is my most beautiful masterpiece".
Travel essentials: Normandy
* The writer travelled to Rouen by train with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk). The journey, from London St Pancras via Paris Gare du Nord and on from Paris Gare Saint-Lazare, takes four to five hours.
* Ferries from Portsmouth to Le Havre are operated by LD Lines (0844 576 8836; ldlines.co.uk).
* CityJet (0871 666 5050; cityjet.com) flies from London City airport to Deauville.
* Hôtel Bourgtheroulde, 15 Place de la Pucelle, Rouen (00 33 2 35 14 50 50; hotelsparouen.com). Double rooms at this new boutique hotel start at €215, room only.
* Royal Barrière Hotel, Boulevard Cornuché, Deauville (00 33 2 31 98 66 33; royal-barriere.com). The grande dame of Deauville, with huge rooms exuding opulence; doubles start at €190, room only.
* Hôtel La Licorne, 27 Place Isaac Benserade, Lyons-la-Forêt (00 33 2 32 48 24 24; hotel-licorne.com). A stylish boutique hotel in a 17th-century inn set in one of France's most beautiful villages, about an hour's drive from Giverny. Double rooms start at €95, room only.
* The Normandie Impressionniste festival (normandie-impressionniste.fr) continues until October.
* Highlights include: Rouen: a city for Impressionism – Rouen scenes by Gauguin, Monet and Pissarro at Musée des Beaux-Arts, Esplanade Marcel-Duchamp, Rouen (00 33 2 35 71 28 40; rouen-musees.com; 9am-7pm daily except Tuesday – but from 11am on Wednesdays and until 10pm on Thursdays and Saturdays; €9).
* Honfleur: between tradition and modernity 1820-1900 – works by Boudin, Corot, Courbet, Monet and others at Musée Eugène Boudin, Place Erik Satie, Honfleur (00 33 2 31 89 54 00; ville-honfleur.fr; 10am-noon and 2-6pm daily except Tuesday; €6.50) until 6 September.
* Paint a "Monet" in Rouen – until the end of September, three-hour workshops are run from the Rouen Tourist Board, 25 Place de la Cathédrale: €105 per person or €50 per person for groups of two to nine. Contact L'Atelier de Peinture (00 33 2 32 08 32 46; rouenvallee-deseine.com).
* Musée Malraux, 2 Boulevard Clémenceau, Le Havre (00 33 2 35 19 62 62; ville-lehavre.fr). Open Wed-Mon 11am-6pm, until 7pm at weekends; €5.
* Monet's house and garden at Giverny (00 33 2 32 51 28 21; fondation-monet.fr) is open 9.30am-6pm daily until 1 November; €6.
* Normandy Tourist Board 00 33 2 32 33 79 00; normandy-tourism.org.Reuse content