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

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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)

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