The boating party
A river cruise into the famous landscapes of the French Impressionists
IT was a painting that started it all. A print of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) was tacked on a wall during my high-school art lectures and I found the scene mesmerising — straw hats and singlets, goblets of red wine, hazy heat and, just visible in the background, unruly reeds, a sailboat, the hint of a river.
Later, studying the Impressionists at university, I discovered the setting was the balcony at Maison Fournaise, a haven for rowers on Ile de Chatou on the right bank of the Seine. My elective art history studies soon revolved entirely around the Impressionists, including Renoir’s Boating on the Seine series and all the works of Berthe Morisot, the subject of my thesis.
I remember sticking my own clumsy copy of her Summer’s Day (1879) on the cover of my workbook in a lame attempt to impress the lecturer. In it ( the original), two women sit in a rowboat on the lake of the Bois de Boulogne. The sky is scribbled with white and the light ripples and dances on the water like a kind of fairyland. I would dream of being there, too, fancying someone looking rather like (the then gloriously handsome) Alain Delon would arrive to row me to heaven.
Now I have died and gone to heaven — or to Paris, at least. I am at Musee Marmottan in a 19th-century former hunting lodge between Jardin du Ranelagh and the Bois de Boulogne, where there are rooms full of Morisot canvases. I am a year late for her special restrospective, which featured Summer’s Day, on loan from the National Gallery in London, but Au bord du Lac is here and many others I know and love.
I am with a small tour group and this evening we will leave Paris on the cruiser Avalon Creativity for a week to sail past (and at some stages into) the landscapes and villages painted by Morisot and her peers on an Impressionist- themed cruise. I
Clockwise from main: the port of Honfleur; Avalon Creativity, outside and within; L’Orangerie in Paris; the route taken during the cruise; the village of Les Andely am about to die and go to Normandy.
This is my second river cruise in Europe and unlike many itineraries it is a circuit, in this case from Conflans Sainte-Honorine in the Ile-de-France area of Paris’s northwest suburbs (improbably, it seems, we can see the Eiffel Tower from the stern); the seven-night itinerary takes a complement of 140 passengers and moves at a smooth and leisurely clip, with overnight moorings.
From the first morning, it feels like being immersed in a gallery of Impressionist canvases. My notes: ‘‘It is 6.15am and we are sailing through woolly mist along the Seine towards Vernon, from where we will take a bus to Giverny to see Monet’s waterlilies and that fabled Japanese bridge . . .
‘‘Leaning out my cabin’s floor-toceiling sliding window, I can just make out the fine tracery of weeping willows, the sentry shapes of poplars, the suggestion of pitch-roofed farmhouses, all emerging from the same pale and aqueous light of Claude Monet’s Sunrise on the estuary at Le Havre.
‘ ‘ There are manor houses with gardens that sweep to the river. Everything’s mysteriously shadowed but the sky is lightening now, defined forms emerging as if from a developing photo. There’s the urgent quacking of ducks, a man cycles along a riverside track, a baguette in his bike’s basket; he waves it at me like a baton just as the sun strikes. Wonderful, comical, I am laughing.’’
And so with guide Stephanie we see Giverny and the pink-and-green house where Monet lived and worked for 43 years and painted his cherished waterlilies in all seasons and permutations of light. The day is bright and shiny and we stroll under a high Wedgwood-blue sky with bundled clouds that could have been daubed that morning by Alfred Sisley.
Day 3 and the city of Rouen beckons on a walking tour escorted by Elodie past half-timbered houses and along cobbled lanes through the medieval quarter; the tally of classified buildings is a head-spinning 800. We learn of the city’s connections to Joan of Arc and to Gustave Flaubert (and where better to buy a copy of Madame Bovary) and, of course, to Monet, who in 1892 and 93 painted a series of more than 30 images of the western facade of its gothic Cathedral of our Lady of Rouen.
That afternoon it’s off with guide Celine by bus to Honfleur and the seagulls and the seaside — this is where in 1864 Monet worked on streetscapes of Rue sunligh captur Camill Sisley h sparklin
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