The western facade of the Rouen cathedral, painted by Claude Monet at different times of day and in different light, is a trademark of Impressionism. To discover 11 of the 28 versions hanging side by side at Rouen’s Musee des Beaux-Arts is alone worth the trip.
Monet isn’t the only attraction. With 126 canvases as evidence, the exhibition “Une Ville Pour l’Impressionnisme” demonstrates that Rouen inspired many painters, some world famous such as Camille Pissarro or Paul Gauguin, others only of regional importance.
The show is the blockbuster in a project titled “Festival Normandie Impressionniste.” More than 20 museums from Cherbourg to Giverny, from Caen to Dieppe are offering variations on the theme, accompanied by lectures, concerts, movies and plays.
The Impressionists weren’t the first artists who discovered the charm of Normandy.
Under the July Monarchy, after 1830, the bourgeoisie got into the habit of spending hot summer months in fishing villages on the Norman coast. Etretat, Trouville, Deauville and Cabourg (Proust’s Balbec) became fashionable seaside resorts where you could easily gamble away the money you had made earlier in the year.
The artists followed the bourgeoisie: In the first room of the exhibition, you find views of the Rouen cathedral by Turner and Corot, both painted in the 1830s.
Monet visited Rouen in 1872. Having twice been rejected by the Paris Salon, he was happy to be allowed into Rouen’s Exposition Municipale -- not without the help of his brother Leon who managed a nearby chemical plant. The result of that visit was several views of the city.
The reason for Monet’s return in 1892, when he began his “Cathedrals,” was a quarrel over money with Leon. Working on several canvases at the same time, he switched back and forth between them to catch every nuance of the changing light.
The following year, he was back for the second series on a subject that obsessed him.
Pissarro also painted the Rouen cathedral, though from a greater distance. He returned in 1896 and, perhaps inspired by his friend Monet, produced a series on bridges over the Seine.
When Gauguin arrived in Rouen, in 1883, he had just given up his job as a trader at the Paris stock exchange. He preferred views of the Norman city’s outskirts.
You can see that Gauguin hadn’t found his signature style yet; some of his canvases have a tentative feel. He left Rouen after 10 months to join his Danish wife in Copenhagen.
The local Impressionists such as Charles Angrand, Joseph Delattre or Albert Lebourg -- nicknamed “Les Mousquetaires” -- are no great shakes. Still, their pictures are pleasant to look at, and it’s always instructive to see how the same subject is handled by a master and an also-ran.
Regrettably, the festival has failed to coordinate with the local preservation authority: The western facade of the cathedral is being restored and only partly visible.
That shouldn’t prevent amateurs from accepting the invitation of the Rouen Tourist Office to draw the facade with the help of a professional coach from where Monet was standing - - a room in a Renaissance townhouse.
“Une Ville Pour l’Impressionnisme” runs through Sept. 26 at the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rouen. Information: http://www.unevillepourlimpressionnisme.fr or +33-2-3571-2840. For more details about the festival, go to http://www.normandie-impressionniste.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)