In northern France, Jasper Rees follows the path of the Seine River out of Paris to find the vistas that inspired some of the world's finest Impressionist painters.
On the trail of the art world's greats through Normandy
Rivers are traditionally seen as feminine, but are there any quite as overtly so as the Seine? She cuts a swathe through the French capital, the bohemian Rive Gauche on her left and Haussmann's very correct boulevards on her right, before sashaying out into the countryside. On her nonchalant way to a rendezvous with the sea, the most French of rivers describes a series of intensely seductive curves, for all the world like a Cancan dancer swinging pneumatic hips.
And among those who have been most seduced are the school of artists collectively known as the Impressionists. From the 1870s their paintings captured the river in all her capricious moods - in gaudy summer sun, under grim overcast skies, in chilly leafless winter. And she glides not only through the seasons but also the full gamut of aesthetic variations. Flowers sprout on her shores, cliffs tower timelessly over her, but then so do chimneys belching industrial smoke.
This stretch of the Seine does not necessarily take one to the most entrancingly beautiful corner of France. There are more soaring landscapes as well as regions which feel more aromatically provincial. It doesn't boast those things we tend to associate with France. It's hard to claim that you have escaped to the deepest, greenest corner of rural France. For that you need to head to more distant wildernesses.
But the stretch of waterway linking Paris and Rouen has its own kind of unique and beguiling quality, and it's the proximity of two cities which accentuates its allure. It's partly to do with the frisson of history: the stretch of land has been integral to France's sense of itself since the Middle Ages as it strove to push the English out of Normandy and back across the sea (only for English-speaking invaders to make a welcome return in 1944). But there is also the way in which the landscape was memorialised on canvas by a group of painters who, as a school driving one another forward towards fresh discovery, are second only to the Renaissance Florentines.
Although the river begins among hills in the belly of the French land mass, a journey along the Seine of the Impressionists must begin in Paris, where the waters slide by under the splendid gaze of the Musée d'Orsay. This is the permanent home to a collection of 60 Impressionist works bequeathed to the state by a painter-collector called Gustave Caillebotte in 1894. It was through these paintings, later enlarged upon and embellished, that a lot of us will have fallen in love with Impressionism. I am certainly one of them. Returning 25 years on, I am shocked above all to see how Manet's Le Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe with its naked female picnicker still has the power to ruffle feathers, much as it stunned the Parisian establishment. So much for chocolate boxes. These were artists guided by a revolutionary spirit of invention, whose works were first exhibited outside the disapproving mainstream in 1874.
In Manet's background a woman by a boat bathes in sheltered waters which presumably feed into the Seine itself. In Monet's paintings at the Musée d'Orsay, meanwhile, they are all sails glinting white and pregnant with wind. In fact, the boats you see on the river now are stouter and/or faster, long tanker-like barges chugging towards La Manche and jumbo river buses, as well as the odd speedboat tugging a water-skier.
In fact, the best place to observe a river is not always on it. The first stop on my tour is at La Roche Guyon, a pretty village hemmed tightly into the blanched chalk cliffs cut by the Seine meandering round the corner. A sturdy turret looks down on a château which seems to grow organically out of the hills. It's possible to suppose that this classically French spot has changed very little in 200 or 300 years, with its single road, proud municipal hall and quiet roadside bars. No doubt it was the sense of safety, allied to comfort that persuaded Field-Marshall Rommel to take up residence and establish the Wehrmacht's high command as the Allies invaded Normandy in 1944. He had very good taste, I think while strolling along the sun-baked grassy path as the river glides serenely by, though not quite as good as Monet.
No Impressionist spent longer observing the sultry wiles of the Seine. A trip down this long section of the river becomes a kind of rerun of Monet's lifetime. In the early years of his marriage he lived in Argenteuil, where those sailing boats beguiled him. Round a spectacular bend or two at Vétheuil the penniless Monets were put up by much wealthier friends, the Hoschedés. A dozen years later Monet had been widowed, Alice Hoschedé had abandoned her spendthrift husband, and they moved permanently with six children into a home even farther from Paris.
Giverny, a small village consisting of a single street on the north bank of the river, is a permanent open-air museum memorialising the artist's obsessive relationship with light, colour and water. There isn't really a bad day to visit. I drop in two days running. On the first I wander around his house and miraculous walled garden and then over the road to the famous ponds with its pretty Japanese bridges and water lilies. It was this garden that Monet captured in a series of epic canvases towards the end of his life.
The sun shines and one can't help reflecting that Monet would be shocked how many strangers were wandering along his carefully landscaped garden paths and up into his bedroom. On such a day the only thing to do is to block out the presence of everyone around and marvel at the remarkable beauty of this created paradise, said by some to be Monet's greatest work.
The next day it's drizzling heavily. "Welcome to Normandy," a local says. "We get British weather here. It's going to rain for the next 10 days." The fringe benefit is that, in the rain, the gardens are charmingly empty. There is also in Giverny at the moment a glorious exhibition at the Musée des Impressionismes, featuring the Clark Collection visiting from Boston of 70 paintings. Several of them are by Monet but others are by his various visitors at Giverny - Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley all flocked to this unofficial home of the Impressionist movement.
This selection of their work, though by no means all of it, depicts the locality, encapsulates the movement's intense and visionary landscape, whether shimmering in the sun, hardened by snow and ice or dampened by rain.
There is no getting away from the fact that art is the reason to visit this part of France. Monet's presence continues to bestride the landscape but that effect happened earlier. The evidence is just over the river in the fine town of Vernon, which has a delightful main square in which a medieval church stands opposite a typically confident French town hall.
On the other side of the river the old bridge with a house on top has been rudely truncated after one arch, as if the river has swept on the town's history away on the current. Some of that history remains in the delightful civic museum featuring permanent examples of Monet and his circle, including a rather slavish copy of haystacks by his stepdaughter Blanche Hoschedé and also the various American acolytes of the painter who flocked to Giverny to daub on canvases and intermarry.
But it's not all painting. Aside from the painter Sisley, the English have their own history along the Seine's shores. Vernon, for example, became an English Christian name after the Norman conquest in 1066. Then a few miles downstream I come to the most strategic place to observe the bends in the river, at the lovely half-timbered medieval town of Les Andelys. The wide waters veer in under the impressive outline of the medieval Château Gaillard before slipping away again in the lee of rugged chalk cliffs.
Miraculously completed within a year in 1198 by Richard the Lionheart, this was the limit of Plantagenet property, from which it was calculated that the French enemy's advance would be seen across the plain. Unfortunately Richard's brother, King John, went and lost it six years later when French forces attacked its supposedly impregnable position from the plateau to the rear. They slipped in through a window, believe it or not. Normandy was thus united with the rest of France and the English were turfed out. Richard is still no doubt spinning in his tomb, downriver in Rouen, where his heart is buried under a stern effigy in the magnificent gothic cathedral.
The afternoon I visit, a group of medieval enthusiasts have come to spend the day in chain mail and slit-eye helmets, wielding pikes and swords and scanning the lovely plain for suspect movement. The only thing moving is the Seine itself, which proceeds towards the final stop of my tour. Rouen, much bombed in 1944 but beautifully restored to its colourful half-timbered glory, is another treasure trove of Impressionist masterpieces at the vast Musée des Beaux Arts.
Among the curiosities are two paintings, one each by Monet and Degas, daubed in their unconverted youth when they were still obediently working in the approved manner. They are both moribund paintings of dead animals. No painters were more intrigued by life and movement, and none more than Monet when he sat in a corner of a square and painted, over and over again, the facade of the cathedral. His record of subtle changes playing an inanimate cliff of carved stone was Impressionism in its essence: light as liquid as the river itself.
If You Go
The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Paris from Dh2,950 return, including taxes
The info Monet’s house at Giverny is 45 minutes by train from Gare St Lazare in Paris (www.voyages-sncf.com). Tickets for the house and gardens at Giverny cost €9 (Dh48) per adult and can be bought online at www.fondation-monet.fr