PAINTERS AND PLACES
On an artistic Tour de France, Deborah Nash traces famous works by 19th-century French painters to the locations that inspired them and finds out what remains today
Visit five locations that inspired some of France’s greatest artists.
Great art thrives on a defined sense of place, with its own story to tell. For every painting and sculpture there exists a landscape, town, street or building that has influenced a particular choice of form, colour, or in the case of the Impressionists, light. These works of art are entwined with the locations that have inspired them, and can lend a unique viewpoint, not only on the physical space itself, but also on its place in time and social history. Exploring the works of some of the most accomplished French artists of the 19th century within the modern-day incarnations of those settings can be a vivid reflection of how times have changed in the past 150 years. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte),
by Georges Seurat, 1884-6; Chicago Institute of Art. La Jatte (which means bowl or basin) is a small grassy island on the River Seine and spans the communes of Neuilly-surSeine and Levallois-perret, just to the north-west of central Paris. In the 19th century, La Jatte was popular for its dance halls; it was also a place where the middle classes came to picnic and to fish. In the early 20th century, the island was a cradle of industry: racing cars, boats and planes were built there. Today, La Jatte is among the most expensive residential areas in the capital. Two road bridges cross the Seine here: the Pont de Levallois and the Pont Maréchal-juin.
The Pointillist painter Georges Seurat, who immortalised the island in his monumental work La Grande Jatte, paired it with Bathers at Asnières to present two different views across the river. The former shows the Seine from
the safety and seclusion of the Jatte. Its shore is a clipped park where the ramrod silhouettes of the bustle-attired and parasol-equipped ladies and top-hatted gentlemen stroll and rest, looking as though they have been cut in topiary. The aloof and calm arrangements of the wealthy stretch out across the grassy knoll into infinity, distant from each other.
In Bathers at Asnières, at the National Gallery, London, workers rest on the riverbanks, wash away the dirt from the smoking factories and stare across towards the island in the same way that Jay Gatsby looked from his home in West Egg towards the twinkling green light of Daisy’s home in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
There are some pictures that fuel the imagination or a fascination, a desire to unlock the source of its mystery. La Grande Jatte is one of these; it even inspired Stephen Sondheim to compose the musical Sunday in the Park with George. If you happen to be in Paris, you can follow a guided walk round La Jatte, but to see the painting you’ll need an air ticket to Chicago. La Gare Saint-lazare (view of the Normandy line), by Claude Monet, 1877; National Gallery, London. Trains for Trouville leave from platform 26 at Gare Saint-lazare in Paris, I discover on a wintry afternoon. This was where Claude Monet painted the first of his series of oils exploring the ephemeral nature of light, but today the grimy glass carapace of the roof scarcely lets the day in. Outside, on Place de l’europe, cars honk while the SNCF engines sweep in beneath electrification cables; on arrival, passengers disperse without so much as a backward glance. Information boards flick to the next departure time.
In 1877, Saint-lazare was the epitome of modernity. The Pont de l’europe, which is surrounded by the square, brought social classes together as they came to watch the coming and going of the steam trains. How thrilling and perhaps alarming it must have been to witness these great engines of steel and coal chugging through the French countryside emitting plumes of cloud, a proof of dramatic change.
Change was not always met with enthusiasm. A fully developed rail network arrived in 19th-century France later than in other European countries, hindered by a lack of available resources and the effects of the Napoleonic wars, but also by the waterborne trading companies which saw the steam train as dangerous competition.
Nevertheless, the railroad was unstoppable. The first Gare Saint-lazare was built in 1837 and expanded in 1851-3 to designs by Eugène Flachat with the construction of a 40-metre roof supported by iron columns. In 1867-68, the star-shaped Pont de l’europe was added to the rear, connecting six avenues over the railway cutting, each named after a European capital (Prussia being conspicuously absent). The present Gare Saint-lazare serves Versailles and destinations in north-west France.
Monet probably created Gare Saint-lazare near platform 27. He worked on-the-spot, in a spontaneous burst of long strokes, blobs and smudges. The writer Hugues Le Roux watched him painting doggedly as the locomotives moved through hot air: “Though the station workers were in his way, he sat there patiently, like a hunter, brush at the ready, waiting for the moment when he could put paint to canvas. That’s the way he always works: clouds aren’t any more obliging sitters than locomotives.”
The painting was among seven views of the station that Monet presented at the third Impressionist exhibition in April 1877, when it won praise for its suggestion of sound, to which I would add the evocation of smell: steam, oil, coal and dust. In a station now illuminated by neon signage, vending machines and the plastic sheen of food and coffee chain shopfronts, those sounds and smells and the sense of adventure that went with them are long gone.
The Yellow Christ ( Le Christ jaune), by Paul Gauguin, 1889; The Albright-knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. Paul Gauguin was drawn to the village of Pont-aven for the cheapness of its lodgings and the customs and costumes of the Breton people, for which, however, he had little understanding. The Yellow Christ was one outcome of his stay, with the companion pieces Le Christ Vert, Portrait de l’artiste au Christ Jaune and Vision après le Sermon.
Today, a perambulation round the village takes you down streets named after the artists who painted there – Rue Paul Sérusier, Rue Émile Bernard and Place Paul Gauguin. At the Place, you can enjoy a meal at the Sur le Pont restaurant, and watch the River Aven’s twisting course, broken by mossy granite boulders that send up spumes of white froth as the waters rush on, past dung-coloured and white-painted stone houses and a smattering of shops with signs in Breton.
Standing proudly above the river is a sculpture of Gauguin’s head with hooded eyes and bent nose, and close by is a bronze relief of the 20th-century Breton-born poet and journalist Xavier Grall. The writer returned to Brittany in the 1970s in response to French actions in Algeria during the colonial war; like Gauguin, he found solace and a refuge in the simple life.
Grall made the walk up the wooded pathway to the Chapelle de Trémalo that holds the carved multi-coloured crucifix that Gauguin used in his painting The Yellow Christ: “I have never seen anything as beautiful,” Grall declared of the anonymous wood statuette. “Not in Rome or Florence, nowhere. The face is infinitely gentle and the crown of green thorns brings out the paleness of the features...”
The granite chapel is surrounded by oak and beech trees, and fields. It has a low-slung slate roof that almost grazes the ground on the north side. To the south stands a wayside calvary on a raised base.
Gauguin’s representation of the chapel’s sculpture is set against a backdrop of autumnal yellows and oranges of the harvest season. The corn is cut, and the cruel crucifix is transposed to gentle hills and fields. It dominates the timeless women present, who are not mourners from the Bible but pious worshippers in traditional Breton coiffes.
The mixing of local folkloric culture with a New Testament story recurs in Gauguin’s oeuvre, reflecting his fascination with the collective anonymity of worship and ritual. His stay in Pont-aven set him on course to paint the shrines and idols of the Tahitian community in the Pacific, even though they had lost their potency for those who had once held them dear.
The Oak of Flagey ( Le Chêne de Flagey), by Gustave Courbet; oil on canvas, 1864; Musée Gustave Courbet, Ornans. Flagey is a hamlet of 142 inhabitants some 12 kilometres from Ornans, in the newly formed Bourgogne-franche-comté region of eastern France. In the 19th century, it was the location of the Courbet family’s ancestral home; the Ornans-born Gustave spent his youth hunting, and fishing in the trout-filled rivers.
Art historians have written reams on the relationship between Courbet, the father of French realism, and this landscape. Both are rugged, earthy, far removed from Paris. The writer Alexandre Dumas fils said of the painter “under what gardener’s cloche, with the help of what manure, as a result of what mixture of wine, beer, corrosive mucus and flatulent swellings can have grown this sonorous and hairy pumpkin?”
By the time this ‘sonorous and hairy pumpkin’ painted The Flagey Oak in 1864 he was an established salon artist. Not as impervious to criticism as the description above would suggest, Courbet retreated from Paris following poor reviews in the early 1860s, and spent a year painting his ‘ terroir’.
The magnificent Oak of Flagey dates from this period. It seems to burst out of its frame, resolute and unshakeable. It is, argues the art historian Linda Nochlin, more than simply a painting of a tree, it is a self-portrait. Rooty-hoofed, lichenencrusted and trunk-holed, with its sprocket of branches bearing the hefty weight of its leaves, the tree embodies Courbet’s commitment to painting only what is there. Yet the work has its secrets.
The Musée Gustave Courbet in Ornans acquired the painting in 2013 from the Japanese collector Michimasa Murauchi, who was persuaded to remove it from an auction so that the museum could fundraise to buy it. Local villagers and businesses in Ornans teamed up with the French state and bought the painting for €4 million.
When it arrived home, the museum ran a radiography scan that revealed a hunter in the scene, which Courbet had decided to paint over, leaving us with a miniature dog chasing a tiny hare.
Courbet had originally given the work the more provocative title of The Vercingétorix Oak, after the leader of the Gauls who fought Julius Caesar’s Roman legions in the battle of Alésia in 52 BC. At the time of the painting, there was an archaeological debate about the location of the battle site: Emperor Napoléon III favoured Alise-sainte-reine in Côte d’or while Courbet, unsurprisingly, supported Alaise in Franche-comté. Although his side lost, the painting declares Courbet’s allegiance to the political left against the Caesar of his era.
In the 1950s, the Flagey Oak was brought down by a storm, which is hard to imagine as it supposedly took seven men holding hands to encircle its girth. In 2012, a replacement oak was planted. It has some way to go to match its predecessor in robustness; at present it would take only one person to grasp it in one hand.
Washerwomen on the banks of the River Touques ( Laveuses sur la Touques près de Trouville),
by Eugène Boudin, 1891; The Burrell Collection, Glasgow. At a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, Eugène Boudin was given the nomenclature ‘the godfather of seaside Impressionism’. From the 1860s onwards he painted the fashionable holidaymakers who had begun to flock to the Normandy town of Trouville. Following the River Seine from Paris, they arrived by train and spent their days on walks and dips in the Channel. Boudin depicted them in plein-air studies, not as individuals, but as migrating groups, which came and went with the tides and the sunshine.
Trouville lies 15 kilometres south of Honfleur, where Boudin was born, and faces the town of Deauville across the River Touques. It remains a popular resort; shell-coloured facades and elegant slate spires cluster around the water’s edge, making it an attractive sight in the summer light.
The activities of the port also caught Boudin’s attention. He painted 100 small works of women busy doing their family washing at low tide. In Washerwomen on the banks of the River Touques, we see a group bent over their work, plunging their garments into the cold water, scrubbing, beating, scraping. On the bridge, a young man in a straw boater has paused to stare. Even though the washerwomen do not talk or turn their heads to each other, there is a sense of camaraderie and concentrated, comfortable togetherness.
Boudin was said to be calm and modest by temperament; his paintings have no axe to grind, nor do they pass comment on the gap between the wealthy middle class he painted on the beach and the busy life of the port. The oils are limpid, lambent; clouds scud across the skies, boats bob on the water and sailing ships look stately in full bloom.
The Trouville-deauville bridge that bisects Boudin’s panel was built in 1863, but was destroyed during World War II. It has been replaced by a concrete road bridge called Le Pont des Belges, in honour of the Belgian forces who liberated Trouville and Deauville.
Boudin was said to be calm and modest; his paintings have no axe to grind
LEFT: Platform 26 at Gare Saint-lazare today; BELOW: Monet’s view of the station; FACING
PAGE: Seurat’s portrait of la Grande Jatte; INSET: The island today with an information panel showing the probable location of the painting’s setting
ABOVE AND LEFT: Gauguin’s painting was inspired by the crucifix in a chapel in Pont-aven: FACING PAGE: Courbet’s painting of the Flagey oak and (INSET) the replacement tree planted in 2012
ABOVE: The resort of Trouville on the River Touques, near the location of Boudin’s painting (TOP)