Caen, the Bessin and the Côte de Nacre

Caen, the Bessin and the Côte de Nacre


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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. 

Caen, the Bessin and the Côte de Nacre

This region attracts many painters who are looking for unspoilt landscapes and want to avoid all the frills of the large seaside resorts.

At the beginning of the 19th century, this was certainly the case for English watercolourists such as Turner and Bonington who came here to admire the medieval architecture of their Norman ancestors; at the end of the 19th century, landscape artists such as Seurat and Signac also painted in the region, attempting to "go beyond" the Impressionist style by practising a more scientific style of art.
Before playing a decisive role in the battle of Normandy during the Second World War, the Bec du Hoc was one of the symbols of conflict between the "Archéos" (the Impressionists) and the "Néos" (the Divisionists). This was a battle eventually won by the "Archéos" – perhaps because they were, after all, the true revolutionaries…


Thanks to its location on the Orne river and near the coast, the capital of Lower Normandy has an attractive appearance combining the appeal of a city with that of a port.
Despite the massive damage caused during the Second World War, William the Conqueror's town has nonetheless retained some magnificent buildings from its historic past, the most emblematic of which are its two abbeys, the Abbaye aux Hommes and the Abbaye aux Dames.
During their trips to Normandy, the English watercolourists depicted most of the city's major monuments. Bonington painted Saint-Sauveur church, while Turner painted Saint-Étienne, Saint-Pierre and Saint-Gilles churches.

     • Musée des Beaux-Arts in the castle grounds
This museum houses an excellent collection of 19th century art, including works from the Romantic, Naturalist, Realist and Impressionist schools. Monet, Lebourg and Boudin are just some of the artists exhibited here; the latter has a whole section dedicated to his work. There is also a fine collection of paintings by Lépine, an artist from Caen who painted outdoors and who, like Boudin, can be seen as part of the transition between the Barbizon School and the Impressionists.

More information on the Musée des Beaux-Arts
The Museé des Beaux-Arts will be hosting the Impressionist Prints exhibition as part of the Normandy Impressionism Festival. 

Around Caen

     • Ouistreham
In 1821, the English painter Bonington came to Normandy on a long trip. He made a sketch of a beach on the Côte de Nacre which he used, two years later, to create his first major oil painting, Near Ouistreham.

     • Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer
In late August 1867, Courbet visited this fishing village which gradually developed into a seaside resort. He stayed here for ten days and during his visit painted The Beach at Saint-Aubin, The Young Rider at Saint-Aubin and Seascape.

     • Port-en-Bessin
It was here during the 1880s that Paul Signac, influenced by Monet, began to paint outdoors. However, his meeting with Seurat encouraged him to move towards a Neo-Impressionist style which emphasised the application of a "simultaneous contrast of colours" in a scientific way, rather than painting intuitively (as was the case with the Impressionists).

     • Grandcamp
As a child, Seurat spent his holidays in Grandcamp. When he returned here in the summer of 1885, he rediscovered his love for the region and his paintings took on a luminous quality that had previously been lacking in his work. Although his seascapes were still painted using Impressionist techniques, the artist now attempted to introduce an austerity and feeling of timelessness that mark a break with the cheerful and vibrant style of the Impressionists.

Contacts and useful links

Most of these websites are available in English. Once on these website, please click on your country flag.

Caen Tourist Office
Tel : 0033 231 27 14 14

Bayeux – Bessin – Plages du débarquement Tourist Office
Tel: 0033 231 51 28 28

Discover a whole host of information on the Calvados Tourist Board's website. Click here to view the Accommodation and Ideas for Short Breaks sections.
Tel : 0033 231 27 90 30

Click here for the Normandy Impressionist Festival programme.

Caen's highlights include:
Impressionist Prints at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen  

Things to see