Five locations in France that inspired famous Impressionists

Venturing beyond Paris, renowned painters such as Monet, Sisley and Gogh found inspiration in the some of France’s hidden corners, from ancient fortified towns

Katja Gaskell
14 April 2024

1. Auvers-sur-Oise

Gogh’s Church at Auvers (Alamy)

After spending a year in the Saint-Paul Asylum in Provence, Van Gogh discharged himself and moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village just 30km from Paris. His brother, Théo, arranged for Dr Paul Gachet to look after him, and Van Gogh’s painting of the physician is still one of his most revered. The doctor’s house has been preserved, with his pharmaceutical bottles and jars left on display; you can even see the red table that featured in his portrait.

Van Gogh sadly took his own life during the brief time that he lived here, just 70 days after arriving. Yet during this period he painted 78 canvases. A marked trail winds its way through the streets highlighting some of the sites featured in works such as the Church at Auvers. The Auberge Ravoux, where Van Gogh lodged, has reopened as a restaurant and closely resembles the dining room where he dined (his favourite table was at the back of the room). Van Gogh’s room (No 5) has remained empty and untouched since 1890 and is open to visitors. A video detailing the artist’s stay in Auvers-sur-Oise plays in the neighbouring attic room.

2. Barbizon

Jean-François Millet’s paintings are displayed in his former studio in Barbizon (Alamy)

Just an hour south of Paris, on the edge of the scenic forests of Fontainebleau, which were once known as one of the greatest hunting grounds in Europe, lies the genteel town of Barbizon. Today the cobbled streets are lined with chic galleries and upmarket restaurants, but back in the mid-19th century, this little village was home to one of the most important artistic centres in Europe.

The Barbizon School of Painters, initially led by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, was established here. These were the first landscape artists in France to discover the joys of painting outdoors, an activity that would later come to define the work of the Impressionists.

Its artists would eat, drink and make merry in the Ganne Inn, an auberge in the heart of town that has been transformed into a museum showcasing works by the Barbizon school. Most fascinating are the original drawings and scribblings left on the walls, which are well worth scrutinising. Nearby, the former studio of Barbizon painter Jean-François Millet is also now a museum filled with his paintings (pictured), sketches and his easel.

3. Deauville & Trouville-sur-Mer

Trouville painted by Monet (Alamy)

The twin seaside towns of Deauville and Trouville-sur-Mer sit side by side on the Normandy coast, separated only by the narrow Touques river. Nicknamed the ‘Parisian Riviera’, both have long been popular with holidaying Parisians and continue to be fashionable.

The former fishing village of Trouville became one of the first seaside resort towns in France and was the place to be seen in the late 1870s. Witnessing its success, the Duc de Morny established Deauville and built grand hotels, a large casino and a racecourse. Even today it is still the glitzier of the two, and its streets are lined with Belle Époque villas, half-timbered houses and designer boutiques.

During the heyday of the Belle Époque era, wealthy Parisians travelled by train to these resorts and spent their days parading the boardwalks, sitting under parasols or ‘sea bathing’. They made the perfect subject matter for the Impressionists, including Berthe Morisot, Édouard Manet and Eugène Boudin. Claude Monet, whose work documented life on the coast (pictured), was so enamoured with the Côte Fleurie area that he even spent his honeymoon in Trouville.

4. Moret-sur-Loing

The Loing River, painted by Sisley (Alamy)

Continue south from Barbizon and you will hit the ancient fortified town of Moret-sur-Loing, once a strategic outpost on the road to Paris and now a popular weekend break from the capital. This was the final home of Alfred Sisley, one of the original artists from the first Impressionist exhibition. Sisley moved to Moret-sur-Loing in the 1880s and spent the last years of his life painting hundreds of works of the Loing river and a series of 14 paintings of the Notre-Dame of the Nativity Church. Despite this huge creative output, however, Sisley lived in poverty and never achieved the same kind of success as his contemporaries during his lifetime. The marked walking trail highlighting his favourite views is a good way to explore the town.

5. Vallée de la Creuse

The ‘Valley of the Painters’ was popular with artists such as Monet (Alamy)

Despite being one of France’s best kept secrets, the Creuse Valley was a common haunt of the Impressionists. Located in what is now the Nouvelle Aquitaine region, it’s since been nicknamed the ‘Valley of the Painters’, owing to the many artists that discovered the region. The most famous, of course, was Monet, who spent the spring of 1889 in the village of Fresselines working on a series of paintings where the Grand Creuse and Petite Creuse converge.

In Fresselines today, the Espace Monet-Rollinat is a contemporary art space that highlights new artists but also has an exhibition celebrating Monet and the poet-musician Maurice Rollinat, who also called Fresselines home. A 3km-long interpretive trail along the Creuse River invites visitors to walk ‘in the footsteps of Monet’.

Make sure to visit the village of Crozant, perched above the Creuse River. Artists such as Armand Guillaumin, Léon Detroy and Monet travelled here by train and stayed at the Hôtel Lépinat. Today the hotel is a multimedia museum tracing the history of painting in the Creuse Valley.

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