From the moment Van Gogh stepped off the train at Arles in 1888, the south of France has been celebrated as the locus of modernity. But what about northern France? Far less trumpeted, but as vital to art history, is its landscape of pleasure and provocation: the Seine valley where Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and their contemporaries explored the effects of light on water and invented the painting of sensation.
Now, nearly 150 years after Monet set up a studio on a boat on the river at Argenteuil, “Normandie Impressionniste” reclaims the impressionists in a festival of exhibitions focusing on the importance of local motifs. Rouen’s Une Ville pour l’impressionnisme and Giverny’s Impressionnisme au fil de la Seine, both boasting lavish international loans, are the major draws, but coast to coast – Degas at Le Havre, Eugène Boudin at Honfleur, print-making in Caen – Normandy is flooded with rewarding shows this summer.
None reshapes our intellectual understanding of impressionism but it is a piquant delight to encounter stunning, rarely seen, often privately owned works in the settings where they were created. Up the road from Rouen’s bridge is Pissarro’s “Le Pont Boieldieu, Rouen, effet de brouillard”, a nuanced blue-grey dawn cityscape shrouded in billowing smoke, borrowed from Mexico’s Perez Simon collection. Near the view which inspired it hangs Bonnard’s tremulous, unstable “Coup de Soleil”, a watery garden seen from the balcony of his house in Vernonnet, near Giverny.
This is cultural tourism at its most authentic: our responses to light, tone, mood are all heightened by local perspective; in situ, too, the impressionist device of capturing subtle gradations of time and weather is more fully grasped. Perez Simon’s foggy masterpiece is one of eight versions showing in Rouen of Pissarro’s marvellous architectonic depictions of the Boieldieu bridge in morning and evening, glistening after a downpour, darkened by cloud, bathed in twilight.
Impressionism’s experiments with the sensation of looking crystallised in two subjects: the rush of industrialised city life and the show of middle-class leisure that it offered, and the sparkle and reflection of light on river and sea. Broadly, Rouen focuses on the first and Giverny on the second. The floating café La Grenouillère – the frog pool – at Chatou is the motif most brilliantly combining the two; the site was, significantly, impressionism’s birthplace. Monet and Renoir set up easels there together, urging one another on to ever more daring and luminously abstracted displays. The freshness of vision, as if air were blowing through the canvas, is perfectly expressed at Giverny in Renoir’s “Canotiers à Chatou”, a balance of rippling water rendered in patches of colour and dainty figures – Renoir began as a porcelain painter – and “A la Grenouillère”, a portrait of the proprietor’s daughter Alphonsine on the terrace, the river behind her flowing under a stark modern bridge softened by a misty background of trees, through which filter gleams of sun.
Monet’s tonal harmony in the 1870s, charged with the thrill of fragmenting the brushstroke to capture luminous vibrations – “Les Bateaux Rouges, Argenteuil”, “La Seine à Rouen” – is still more delicate. Both artists’ joy at conquering light soon attracted the most innovative young talent. Each brought something individual: the warm lyricism of Sisley’s river scenes such as “La Seine à Suresnes”, Caillebotte’s angled views and intent perspectives in “Voiliers à Argenteuil” and “Partie de bateau”, Pissarro’s restlessness and profound feeling for nature, finely expressed in watercolours and crayon drawings of Rouen’s docks and country environs, as well as in paintings.
Even artists whose sympathies were not essentially impressionist were briefly seduced. Gauguin’s bold, schematically composed “Verger sous l’église de Bihorel”, concentrated on the structure of a fruit tree enlivened by swift bright strokes denoting children half-hidden in the grass on a summer’s day, is a highlight of the artist’s stay in Rouen. Seurat dazzlingly used impressionism to explore artifice, distance, estrangement in canvases such as “La Seine à Courbevoie”, a frieze-like panorama where a rigidly posed woman with a dog seems to glide along the river bank like a mechanised puppet, recalling the hieratic formality and strict verticals and horizontals of “La Grande Jatte”.
These were painted in 1884-85 and mark the moment when mastery of depicting light had become assured, and the most ambitious artists were seeking new challenges. Seurat died young and Monet alone had the nerves to drive impressionism to its inevitably abstracting conclusion. To do so, he chose two motifs to prove that for a painter of light, subject was irrelevant. The first, a haystack, was as formless as imaginable; the second, Rouen’s Gothic cathedral, was the embodiment of formal complexity. Monet rented a room facing the west front and depicted the cathedral façade some 20 times, not as religious monument but as its opposite – a record of the fleeting moments of an individual secular vision, unfolding according to different light conditions from dawn to sunset.
Eleven of these “Cathedrals” – borrowed from Los Angeles, Boston, Belgrade, diverse French museums – are reassembled in Rouen in a single, magnificent gallery. Are they melting ice-creams, as Kenneth Clark mocked, or “the work, well thought out”, according to Pissarro, “of a man with a will of his own, pursuing every nuance of elusive effect, such as no other artist ... has captured”? Certainly seeing them together enhances their symphonic splendour and appreciation of their varied painterliness: the liquid colours – orange, pink, grey, purple – and crusty impasto with which Monet caught light on the fretted surfaces and shadows in the deep recesses. The effect of Gothic without the detail is curiously reminiscent of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, begun around the same time. Although Monet was not influenced by art nouveau, the echo is one of Zeitgeist: so many styles at the fin de siècle heralded abstraction.
In the following years, dissolving light and colour in his waterlily series at Giverny, Monet became a 20th-century artist. It is extraordinarily moving, after seeing both exhibitions, to visit the garden of lily ponds and Japanese bridges that Kirk Varnedoe called the artist’s “harem of nature”. Then, returning to Paris, the Musée Marmottan completes the story with Monet et L’Abstraction, juxtaposing its Monet icons with postwar celebrities – “Impression, Soleil Levant” with Gerhard Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild, See”; “La Plage à Pourville, soleil couchant” with a Rothko; “Le Pont Japonais” and “Bassin aux nymphéas” with Pollock’s “Number II, 1950” – to dramatise just how far Monet’s vision stretched into the future, even as he remains unrivalled in fixing the sensation of the moment.
‘Normandie Impressionniste’, to September 30, www.normandieimpressionniste.fr ‘Une ville pour l’impressionnisme’, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, to September 26 ‘L’impressionnisme au fil de la Seine’, Musée des impressionnismes, Giverny, to July 18 ‘Monet et L’Abstraction’, Musée Marmottan, Paris, to September 26