As the night boat from Portsmouth slowly pierced the morning mists of the Caen estuary, an orange glow appeared in the sky, its reflections breaking on the surface of the water. There was no visible horizon, just blue grey sea and mist punctuated by the black silhouettes of channel markers as they composed themselves around the rippling glow of that Normandy sunrise.
Claude Monet painted just such a scene at Le Havre in 1873. He called it ‘Impression Sunrise’, the very painting on which critic Louis Leroy focused at an exhibition in 1874 when he labelled Monet and his artist friends as ‘mere impressionists’.
For me such a welcoming scene to Normandy’s shores held a more powerful relevance than you might imagine. In just three days I was to retrace Monet’s footsteps through the Normandy landscape, endeavouring to capture in camera the scenery which was so much in harmony with the artist’s eye for light and colour.
My images were to form the basis of an audio visual programme (or Diaporama as it is known in France), featuring the life and work of Claude Monet.
‘In Pursuit of Nature’ was the title of the presentation and I was now on Normandy soil in pursuit of Monet landscapes.
Honfleur provided a wealth of reflection in the still morning air. Tightly packed around the inner harbour, the tall slate fronted houses were mirrored in the motionless surface of the Vieux Bassin. Somewhere a dog barked and the fishermen leaning on the harbour wall exchanged cheerful greetings with everyone who passed. A café on the Quai Ste Catherine rattled open its shutters and spilled tables and chairs on to the pavement. Honfleur was awakening to a warm summer morning.
The town retains something of a village atmosphere and it is not difficult to understand why Honfleur became a favourite haunt of the fresh air painters of the 1860’s. Here Boudin introduced the young Monet to painting in the open air rather than in a studio. “Everything that is painted directly and on the spot always has a force, a vivacity of touch that is not to be found in studio work” he told him.
East along the coast from Le Havre, further Monet landscapes come to life at Étretat.
Today Étretat is a holiday resort but the cliff formations of the Falaise D’aval and the Manneporte remain as Monet painted them, despite the onslaught of weather and sea.
As I strolled along the cliff top heights, the sound of silence was broken only by the most tuneful gulls in all France. Above the Manneporte I sat for awhile and recalled the many stories of Monet battling with the elements while endeavouring to capture a specific atmosphere or light.
It is said that he once caught rain in his hand and threw it on the canvas in a desperate attempt to create reality and on another occasion he became so engrossed in his work, he ignored the tide swirling around his waist. Monet was later rescued as the waves swept painter, easel and canvas away from the shore.
Étretat always had a strong fascination for Monet. As an old man he once made a visit there just to look at the sea. Returning to his home in Giverny he revealed “Here I am, back again, delighted with my little trip. I saw and dreamed about so many memories, so much toil”.
The very atmosphere which attracted Monet to Étretat still survives and you feel that if he were to return there today the same images would emerge on his canvas.
Monet’s fascination with the effects of light brought him to Rouen during the winter of 1892 to 1893. He spent two months painting the subtle colours of the stonework as the light enhanced different aspects of the cathedral’s magnificent facade.
My late evening arrival in Rouen found the intricate lace like forms of the west facade bathed in the warm glow of a summer evening. Hardly reminiscent of Monet’s more pastel winter shades but an overwhelming sight nevertheless.
Vétheuil, situated on a sweeping bend of the river Seine, is a village framed by hills and surrounded by fields, which in summer reflect a sea of red as wild poppies turn riverside scenes into real life, Monet paintings.
It was in this rural setting that Monet found harmony with nature and described his life as “becoming more peasant like”. At Vétheuil he concentrated on the light, weather and the seasons as they played across the village and surrounding countryside.
In September 1879, after a long illness, Monet’s wife Camille died at the age of 32. It was while in search of Camille’s grave in the cemetery at Vétheuil that I recalled one poignant moment in Monet’s life. He had become so obsessed with the nuances of colour that when taking his final look at Camille as she lay on her bed he was moved to paint the colours death had left on her face. It remained an image he lived with for many years.
Giverny is a village which is now synonymous with Claude Monet. It was perhaps more than relevant that I should finish my search for Monet images in the very place which holds such lasting tributes to this master of impressionism.
Giverny saw the enrichment of his life and work. Here he married his long-time mistress Alice Hoschedé, created his famous garden and made endless trips into the surrounding countryside in search of those special motifs.
In an area where the Seine and the Epte are lined with willow and poplar, I walked through woods and along river banks, experiencing moments of fleeting light and reflection which my camera captured in an instant. I became conscious that those same moments would have provided Monet with hours of visual torture as he endeavoured to create his very personal view of reality and nature.
In and around Giverny I observed endless reminders of Claude Monet. The hill that goes around behind the Seine was very dear to him and every tree and fold in the landscape appears to have been moulded by nature for a Monet canvas.
Even walking around his garden it is not to difficult to visualise the artist at work amidst a profusion of flowers and in the background his pink stuccoed house.
The water garden and lily pond remain havens of tranquillity. Here I attempted to capture the ever changing mirror of water as reflected willows stirred in a gentle breeze. Patches of sky became fleeting aspects of light which to Monet would have been the essence of his motif.
Shortly before his death Monet summed up his artistic career as being “to render my impressions in front of the most fleeting effects”.
In tracing Monet’s footsteps with a camera I also found myself in pursuit of nature. Not surprisingly perhaps, after all, Monet’s studio was nature itself.
Honfleur Inner Harbour
Boy Gallerie Doorway Honfleur
Honfleur, Harbour Reflections
Etretat, Normandy Coast
Rouen Cathedral, Evening Light
Vetheuil and Church Steps
Giverny, Village Corner and Post Box
Monet's Water Garden
Summer Colour in Monet's Garden
Roses at Giverny
Poppies in the Garden at Giverny
Giverny Village Church