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"Summer at the seaside: Leisure activities and Impressionism" exhibition opens in Caen
Director of Caen's fine arts museum, Patrick Ramade (L) looks at the painting "Dame à la terrasse" by Henri Matisse, three days before the opening of "Normandie Impressionniste" at Caen's fine arts museum, on April 24, 2013. The exhibition which takes place in Caen is one of the three most important, with the ones of Le Havre and Rouen, which are "National interest" labelized. Caen's exhibition gathers 67 art paintings including 34 from abroad. This exhibition (in Rouen, Caen and Le Havre) begins on April 27 to September 29. AFP PHOTO CHARLY TRIBALLEAU.

CAEN.- The prodigious boom in holiday resorts and outdoor leisure activities was one of the great changes of the 19th century and it had an undeniable impact on the history of art. A whole section of society gaily boarded the train and set off to conquer new territories: the coast, the beach, the sea… Normandy, but many other regions too, played a key role in this new craze.

For the first time, artists left the city and shifted their studios to the country, an important sign of what was to come. The Impressionists no longer looked for subjects in books or their own imaginations, but focused on real life in these newly conquered territories, the many holiday resorts and leisure places that mushroomed along the water’s edge.

The exhibition is divided into four sections that illustrate the ways the painters explored these themes, ranging from beach scenes and the infinite atmospheric variations of the seaside, to the insertion of bare bodies in a seascape. These sun-drenched bodies became the artists’ exclusive focus, symbolising the metamorphosis of the academic nude in a blend of tradition and modernity.

On the sand
The beach was the best place for the early holidaymakers to experience the pleasures of the sea. Under the Second Empire, fishing villages rapidly morphed into fashionable bathing resorts, complete with sumptuous villas and grand hotels. In search of something exotic and picturesque, the holidaymakers paradoxically recreated Parisian society on the Norman beaches, which soon became “Paris’s summer boulevard.”

Manet, Monet, Berthe Morisot, and Degas painted evocative beach scenes, in the form of free, spontaneous sketches. Under Boudin’s influence, Claude Monet painted the beaches of Trouville and Sainte-Adresse, starting a genre that was enriched by the experimental work carried out by Manet in Boulogne and Gauguin in Brittany. This section includes the work of realist and descriptive artists such as Prinet, Blanche, and Helleu, leading us to the luminous canvases of Maurice Denis, who staged engaging scenes of his family on holiday at Perros-Guirec. Major contributions to this genre were made by foreign artists such as Kroyer and Liebermann, and the Spanish painter, Sorolla.

Looking at the sea
Tourism transformed the coastline and the beaches were soon dotted with bathing machines, necessary contraptions for changing into the right costume to brave the waves. People bathed in the sea and strolled on the beach fully clothed, twirling a sunshade, out of modesty but also to preserve the pale complexion that was still the hallmark of the well-to-do. Painters set up their easels on the promenades or on the beach itself, in search of new sensations. Sand has been found in the paint in Monet’s canvases.

Seascapes changed radically, enlivened by people strolling on the beach and admiring the view. Boat rides offered the artists new viewpoints and some, such as Monet or Bonnard, even painted scenes from the water.

Boats and Sails
Craft such as dinghies, sailboats and yachts delighted the painters, as subjects in themselves, but more importantly for the various activities they permitted: races, regattas, boat rides. In 1871 Monet made a decisive move to Argenteuil, on the bank of the Seine; the many artists who joined him there contributed to one of Impressionism’s most creative chapters.

The last section is the highlight of the exhibition, presenting large and often ambitious compositions. It leaves the Norman coasts, reminding us that Impressionism also has a Mediterranean dimension. Challenging the long tradition of history painting, artists transcended the academic treatment of the nude and painted bodies bathed in light and sunshine in an exuberant natural setting. Here we find Bazille, Degas’s strange Peasant Girls Swimming in the Sea at Evening, uninhibited in their nakedness, Seurat (a remarkable series of studies for his masterly Bathing at Asnières ), Cross, a surprising Kupka, and, of course, Renoir and Cézanne, the most prolific in this genre. The figure is central to their thinking and their aesthetic: sunny, voluptuous fullness in Renoir, a search for structure and rhythm in Cézanne. Let us not forget that Cézanne’s series of Bathers was a milestone in the adventure of modernity, a brilliant transition to Matisse and Picasso.

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