A brush with the masters
Julie HatÞeld puts paint to canvas on an art cruise along the Seine.
It sounds like an art critic’s version of hell. Forty people behind their easels on board a cruise ship, determined to create their own masterpieces. AmaWaterways – which partners APT here in Australia – had promised passengers three two-hour painting sessions – and the chance to create three pieces of “art”.
Of the 80 passengers from Australia, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States who had booked the Art Illumination Cruise along the Seine River, going from Paris deep into Normandy and returning in seven day, 40 of us had signed on to brush up on the old masters. The majority had never held a brush or put paint to paper before.
Elizabeth Grebler, holder of an art degree from California State University, had been hired to guide us. And, of course, this lovely stretch of the Seine would provide the inspiration.
As we boarded AmaLegro, we noticed the art
on the walls comprised prints of famous French Impressionists. No pressure!
We learned that one of Grebler’s duties as art teacher was to encourage people who had been told at school that they had no talent, and to persuade them to just pick up a brush and paint.
On our second day, we were taken on an excursion to the glorious home and Giverny gardens of Claude Monet – a founder of the French Impressionist movement and its most proliÞc practitioner. He loved landscapes. And he painted the Water Lilies series – some 250 oils of his ßower garden.
So with fresh visions of snapdragons, hollyhocks and, of course, water lilies in our heads, we headed into the dining room after breakfast where 40 easels had been set up – each with a set of paints and an apron.
Standing in front of us, Grebler began painting her version of the water lilies, one colour at a time. She showed us how to mix shades and encouraged us to put anything down that we wished. These were, after all, going to be our personal pieces of art to keep as mementos of a delightful week cruising the Seine.
We had read that Monet said: “I may be a painter, but itÕs thanks to ßowersÓ. So we took the plunge with our paint for the very Þrst time in our lives Ð thanking the ßowers as we went.
As we worked, Grebler came around with encouraging remarks for everyone. Each of the 40 paintings was slightly different but almost all – except for the painting by a dentist from Atlanta – looked like MonetÕs famous ßowers. Those of us who were virgin artists were surprised by how few pats of acrylic paint we were given. Where, for example, would we Þnd the green we needed for all the vegetation? Our teacher showed us how to mix our yellow and blue pigments to make any shade of green we wanted.
We painted for two hours each day. And when we were resting our newly acquired artistic talents, we took excursions.
Those who chose not to paint used some of the 20 bicycles that were stored on the top deck to tour the towns and villages where we docked, or just stayed on board and enjoyed the hot tub and the Þtness and reading rooms.
We ÒartistsÓ visited the fortiÞed Middle Ages town of Honßeur with its slate covered half-timber houses and a picturesque harbour that Monet loved to paint. Which meant that our class the next day dealt with reßections on water and sky, with Grebler telling us to Òbrush in your sky ÞrstÓ and Òremember the light and colour of the mirror of the cloudsÓ. Put your houses in last, was her advice.
We painted little sailboats and multicolored cottages and water reflections with varying degrees of success.
Many of the passengers visited the beaches of Normandy. Almost all of us, when the boat tied up in the town of Rouen, spent the evening enjoying the stunning light and sound show presented on the front of the 12th to 16th-century Rouen Cathedral. Another church in Rouen, the city where the demise of Joan of Arc took place, is the gorgeously lacy Church of Saint-Maclou. With an architectural style called "Flamboyant Gothic", the church resembles the winner of a serious sand sculpture contest.
Toward the end of the trip, our excursion to Chateau de Malmaison, the luxurious estate of Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte, which served as the seat of French government from 1800 to 1802, had us studying the valuable collection of art with new, appreciative eyes.
Our vision of Paris as we had Þrst made our way along the river leaving the city was of a brilliantly illuminated Eiffel Tower, and that's what Grebler suggested we paint for our final work of art. She began by showing us the perspective of the legs of the tower, using black and white to put the varying and iconic dimensions into the art.
As our week on AmaLegro went on, we had noticed that some of the Impressionist art along the hallways was disappearing. In its place were the works of unknown artists.
Yes, our Þrst exhibition.
Sometimes, these newly minted art works had a price next to them. One said "Euro 4". An hour later, another price had been scratched over the original, reading "Euro 1 Ð on sale!".
The funniest exchange was the first day's painting by the dentist, who instead of water lilies had chosen to paint a violent red-slashed picture of distress, which we silently named "Root Canal Gone Awry". No matter, he said, he was happy painting anything for the Þrst time. Even when the picture he had put on the wall outside his cabin was placed in the rubbish bin a few hours later.
We loved the experience of making our own European art and cruising aboard AmaLegro was a lovely experience. The cabins were surprisingly roomy and comfortable, with tiny balconies, which allowed us to see the parade of villages as we passed.
Chefs George Sakadanov and Norman Wolf provided exquisite French-inspired meals three times a day, along with elegant tea times and cocktail hours. It was not unusual to find l'escargots and frogs' legs in cream sauce at lunchtime, and we understood why AmaWaterways is the only river cruise company in the world to be awarded membership in the "Royal Guild of Goose Roasters" Ð known more generally as La Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, the oldest gastronomic society on the planet.
– This cruise is now offered on AmaLyra, see Fact File.
Clockwise from top left: art teacher Elizabeth Grebler; Giverny gardens; AmaLegra
Clockwise from top left: AmaLyra suite; onboard art class; AmaLegro reception