Some of us live in war zones, and some of us are lucky enough to live in peace. A great many places have felt the full power of war, creating and destroying history in equal measure. Normandy is one such region of France where the evidence of war sits silent, witness to former invasion.
When I arrived in Rouen nearly three years ago I took the city at face value. The antiques quarter, the cathedral quarter, the colombage timberwork, the redbrick, and the postwar ‘communist’ style concrete river frontage. Each element having its own undoubted character and atmosphere.
Then last a year last summer I had the great fortune to find myself outside the Musée de Beaux Arts on the final day of the Impressionist Exhibition, and was drawn inside like a moth to a flame. I was fully expecting to find myself in front of the ‘waterlillies’ but was astounded to find myself in front of a series of paintings little known to the vast majority of public, lent by private collections, many of which I am unable to reproduce, but all of which depicting views in and around Rouen in the time of Monet.
Monet stayed in Rouen between the years of 1892 – 1898 while painting his famous series on the Cathedral, and produced a wide variety of paintings of the Seine in various media, along with his friends Pissarro and Gaugin.
Today, as I wandered the Seine trying to determine where he would have placed his easel, what came into sharp focus was the riverside architecture at the time of the Impressionists, in comparison with the post war buildings we find today.
Whilst the post war Rive Droite retains its verticality, the war wiped out the classic stone architecture with their shop fronts and awnings, their mansards and tall chimneys for a bland concrete sprawl.
The Bouldieu Bridge, here painted by Pissarro exists today, but not in it’s original form. Even at the time of the Monet, the long masted ships and steam boats would have docked at Rouen, their wares being transported up river by barge just as the container ships of today are offloaded onto ‘peniches’ to continue their journey to Paris. The bridge was destroyed on the morning of 9 June 1940 by the French, just 52 years after its construction to prevent the progress of the German forces. The new Pont Bouldieu built in 1955 equally provides a source of inspiration to the modern day artist Arne Quinze.
But how the river traffic has changed…
I spent hours walking the Seine before realising that Monet had placed himself on the Rive Gauche east of the Ile Lacroix. Not immediately finding his vantage point, this painting gave me a clue.
The Ile Lacroix is one of the few areas of Rouen riverside which retains its greenery.
Sadly this abundant greenery from this painting taken from the Rive gauche no longer exists. I took artistic liberty to take the view from the other direction.
The Seine below Rouen has changed beyond all recognition, swathes of building taken out in bombing raids, industrialisation and the construction of huge grain stores sadly change all but the moody aspect of the skies!
But inspired by Monet I enjoyed watching the rivercraft passing, or moored to the posts which remain to this day. Watching the ‘peniches’ (barges) making their way steadily upriver laden with coal, sand or gravel I thought about how they formed makeshift bridges ‘end to end’ laterally across the river for allied access until the new bridges were constructed at the end of the war.
The moody weather didn’t detract from the activity on the river, nor from the craft moored there.
The chalk cliff of Côte St Catherine remains, dominating the eastern flank of the city.
From Côte St Catherine Monet painted his famous view of Rouen.
Sadly, as much as the tall masts from the Armada celebrations in 2008 evoke a little of the sense of the river at the time of Monet, where masts and steam competed for dominance, we can never reclaim the architecture – the rubble long since cleared and replaced.
Had it not been for Monet, would I have ever wondered what was there before?
… thanks to the Impressionists artistic genius, I have at least an idea what the Seine and the Rouen quayside was like before the hand of war had its say.
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