Our thanks to Jacques-Sylvain Klein, who very kindly made available to us texts which he has written for the "Guide du Routard des Impressionnistes en Normandie". To read these texts in full, readers are invited to purchase the "Guide du Routard" guidebook (in French), available from French bookshops.
The southern coast of the Manche département has long attracted artists in search of light and picturesque scenery. Many came here to paint these breathtaking natural landscapes, which often have a wild, untamed feel during stormy weather.
The end of the 19th century saw the arrival of a wave of new artists who aimed to go beyond Impressionism, including the Divisionist Signac, the Nabi Maurice Denis (who was from Granville) and the Fauvist Valtat. These modern artists in turn inspired a new generation of creative minds such as the painter Dufresne and the couturier Christian Dior.
There is a long tradition of sea bathing in Granville, where the beach is situated right in the heart of the town. This site was popular with Naturalist and Realist painters, who were drawn here by the wild landscapes and the rough seas crashing onto the rocky promontory.
In the Salon of 1833, Rousseau exhibited his View of the Coast of Granville, which was criticised by the jury for its lack of finish – a criticism which would later be made of the Impressionists' work.
Corot painted Fishing boats bobbing on the sea here and Courbet, having escaped the hustle and bustle of Deauville, painted peaceful seascapes devoid of summer holiday-makers or indeed any life at all.
A visit to Granville's fascinating museums will provide a good introduction to this charming town of the Corsairs, with its granite architecture, narrow streets lined with fine town mansions and modest fishermen's houses.
• Musée du Vieux-Granville
This museum is dedicated to regional history and ethnography. The art section houses works by painters born in Granville, such as Lhuillier, the teacher of Dufy, Friesz and Marquet at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Le Havre. The museum also exhibits works inspired by the town – such as The Beach at Granville by Isabey – or by other sites in the region – such as The Waterfalls of Mortain by Courbet, which is undoubtedly the highlight of the collection.
• Musée d’Art Moderne Richard-Anacréon
This modern art museum is named after Richard Anacréon, a 20th century Parisian bookseller who was originally from Granville. With exquisite taste and intuition, Anacréon gathered together an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, drawings and engravings which he left to his native town after his death. Combined with other acquisitions made by the town based around the theme of "Art and Literature", this superb collection of contemporary art features Neo-Impressionists such as Signac, Cross and Luce, Fauvist painters such as Derain, Dufy and Vlaminck, and works by Picasso and sculptors Rodin and Bourdelle.
A fortified town controlled by the Dukes of Normandy, Avranches has a rich history going back centuries. The town's name is inseparable from that of Mont-St-Michel; the magnificent manuscripts written and illuminated by the monks of Mont-St-Michel are housed in the Scriptorial in Avranches. Take some time to visit the Scriptorial, then enjoy a stroll through the old town as far as the Saint-Gervais basilica, home to the famous skull which bears a hole said to have been made by the finger of St Michael.
Mont-St-Michel "Le Couesnon, en sa folie, mit le Mont en Normandie" ("It was the Couesnon, in an act of folly, which put the Mont in Normandy"). This local saying is familiar to all Normans worthy of the name. Separated from the mainland, encircled by shifting sands and often crowned with sea mist which lifts quickly, Mont-St-Michel is surrounded twice a day by the tide which moves, they say, at the speed of a galloping horse. During the equinoctial tides, the sea can retreat as far as 18km from the bay.
All of these factors have made the area a magnet for landscape artists. Cotman was the first of the English watercolourists to show an interest in Mont-St-Michel, followed by Turner and many of his compatriots. Later still, the area was visited by the Romantic artist Isabey, followed by Corot, and then Rousseau.
The Impressionists largely ignored Mont-St-Michel, which was undoubtedly too romantic for their tastes. However, the area was painted by the Neo-Impressionists, such as Valtat and Signac. The latter made large sketches here, from which he created five paintings of Mont-St-Michel, depicted in different lights and at different times of day. Although the idea of series painting was Monet's, the Pointillist technique which Signac used had been invented ten years earlier by his friend Seurat.
• A stroll on the Mount
This medieval town welcomes nearly 3.5 million visitors every year. Wander into the town through the Porte du Roy, complete with its drawbridge, and stroll along the Grande Rue lined by museums, souvenir shops and 15th and 16th century houses. To get to the Merveille buildings and the abbey, climb up the Grand Degré steps. You will then have the choice of coming back down via the rampart walk (Chemin des Remparts) or the watch path (Chemin de Ronde), which is dotted with small gardens.
Many of the walks across Mont-St-Michel bay start from the Bec d’Andaine, with its vast beaches of fine sand. It's hardly surprising that many painters, seduced by the views of the mount (known as the "Merveille des Merveilles" or "Marvel of Marvels"), chose to settle in Genêts, a small town characterised by narrow streets, stone houses and a rather austere atmosphere. The beautiful Suzanne Valadon was very fond of her small house here, adorned with an external staircase. She took up painting on the advice of Lautrec and created Impressionist-style landscapes which demonstrate a clear attachment to shape, volume and construction. Her painting The Village Square in Genêts is similar in style to the work of her son, the unclassifiable Utrillo.
• Crossing the bay
A guide is absolutely essential if you wish to cross the bay on foot. There are various tours on offer and the crossing is undertaken barefoot.
Contacts and useful links
Most of these websites are available in English. Once on these website, please click on your country flag.
Granville Tourist Office
Tel : 0033 233 91 30 03
Avranches Tourist Office
Tel : 0033 233 58 00 22
Mont-Saint-Michel Tourist Office
Tel : 0033 233 60 14 30
La Maison de la Baie
Tel : 02 33 89 64 00
Discover a whole host of information on the La Manche Tourist Board's website.