Making an Impression on Us, or Connecting with the French Art Scene

A big thank you to Backroads Travel  for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

Paris is known for its art. The Louvre and the Palace at Versailles jump to our minds as favorites for adding to our Francophile feelings, but in reality the entire city is a work of art.

However, in our endless effort to expand our horizons, we recently learned that venturing just outside of The City of Light can make a lasting impression.

At least it did for two of the greatest impressionists ever, well maybe just one, Claude Monet, since Vincent van Gogh characteristically rejected the label and is usually considered post-impressionist or expressionist.

Not being art snobs, we generally don’t care about the nomenclature anyway. We just know what we like, and we love these two, so we were entirely excited to visit their homes as a part of our Backroads Travel Bike tour of Normandy.

We began this art immersion at Giverny, the home of Claude Monet. This quaint village caught the artist’s eye while he was passing through on a train. Soon after he moved, bought a house, and set about creating the garden he immortalized in many of his paintings.

This was something new to the art world; the artist was not only capturing a scene, but had constructed the subject of his work himself. And Monet took that construction extremely seriously.

His designs were inspired by Japanese gardens, a subject he knew well as an avid collector of prints. Many of these are on display inside the house; alongside some of the artists own best known works.

The Japanese theme included willows, bamboo, and building a bridge covered with wisterias that he made famous in several paintings. All of this was used in combinations that helped to seclude the garden from the surrounding countryside.

Monet found inspiration in his water garden for over twenty years and as we walked around the perimeter of the pond it was easy to see why. We found ourselves looking from the artist’s vantage point at live versions of many of his masterpieces.

The feeling of being there at the creation of some of art’s most renowned works engulfed us.

Following Monet’s lead, many more artists began to move to Giverny in the late eighteen hundreds, including a number of American Impressionists, until the town became quite well known as an artistic colony.

At that same time, another great master decided to move to the nearby village of Auvers sur Oise. After a short ride, we discovered that the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh lived in a much different manner, or should we say manor, than Monet.

There was no elegant country home for van Gogh. He rented a tiny room at local boarding house, the Auberge Ravoux. The  inn became very popular with the artistic community with all of the rooms occupied by Dutch and American painters.

Now more a museum than roadhouse, it is known as the House of Van Gogh, Maison de Van Gogh, but still has the restaurant on the ground floor.

We climbed up a dark and narrow staircase to reach his second floor chamber and were taken back by the size, only 75 square feet. That even felt small to us, and we have lived for years in an RV.

The motorhome had many more amenities too. This room had nothing but a bed, a chair, and a table, but Vincent certainly seemed to find the surroundings creatively stimulating, producing an average of two works a day over the final seventy days of his life.

Yet his move was more for therapeutic reasons than for artistic inspiration. He had come seeking help from Dr. Paul Gachet, a patron of the arts with experience treating mental illness.

While ultimately unsuccessful with the patient, the doctor did manage to be immortalized in a portrait, which sold for a record price of $82.5 million in 1990.

That was no help at the time though, and the good doctor’s treatment failed rather miserably when van Gogh shot himself in the chest on July 27th, 1890. The artist initially survived the suicide attempt, but died two days later.

The tragedy went largely unnoticed by the world at the time, but not by Theo van Gogh, the master’s younger brother. He had financially supported the artist for many years, since even as a successful art dealer he is thought to have only sold one of Vincent’s works.

But more than a benefactor, he was a believer in the genius, and was so distraught that he passed away only six months later. He was buried beside his brother.

Ironically, it was not long until the world discovered van Gogh, and within a few years he was regarded as an all-time great.

To conclude our visit, we mounted our cycles and rode a short distance out of town toward the cemetery. As we rode we noticed certain landmarks with signs featuring paintings comparing the currant spot with the artwork.

These were places that van Gogh had captured during his final months, now immortalized by his brush strokes. Yet another touch that seemed to put us inside the world of these two extraordinary artists.

For someone so impactful, we were surprised by van Gogh’s lowly lifestyle, and that continued at the graveyard where the brothers are interned.

We left our bikes at the gate and wandered into the yard, but had there not been a few other visitors to the grave we would have had no idea where to look. There are no big monuments or memorials, just two very humble graves side by side.

And again, somehow that added to our feeling of being connected.

David & Veronica,

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8 thoughts on “Making an Impression on Us, or Connecting with the French Art Scene”

  1. The word ‘Parisian’ is synonymous with style, and fashion shopping is the city’s forte. Paris remains at the forefront of international trends, and browsing emerging and established designer boutiques and flagship haute couture houses is a quintessential part of any visit. You’ll also find hip concept and homewares shops, and resplendent art nouveau department stores, along with a trove of vintage shops and flea markets, atmospheric bookshops and dark-green bouquiniste stalls stocking secondhand titles along the riverbanks, adorable children’s wear and toy shops, art and antique dealers, venerable establishments selling professional cookware, and, of course, gourmet-food and wine shops galore.

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