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Painting workshop on the Normandy coast

Updated: May 21

The French coast was a popular place for the impressionist painters. I too am trying my luck as an artist at a painting workshop in Normandy.

Impressionism was named after the painting “Impression, Soleil Levant”, which Claude Monet painted on November 13, 1872 at 7:35 a.m. in Le Havre.
Impression, Soleil Levant Monet Le Havre today

"We can actually determine the date and time with such precision," says Géraldine Lefebvre, director of the Musée d'art moderne in the French coastal town. We stand together on the shore not far from the museum and look out over the overseas port. "We commissioned an astrophysicist to find out at what time and at what time of year the sun was exactly over the lock. At the same time, we searched the port books . The picture shows two boats, and all the activities on the water are recorded in the books. We arrived at the same time independently of one another.

Click on the first picture to start the photo gallery of Le Havre:

Le Havre is not the most beautiful city in the world, even though it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site . 80% of it was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. The architect Auguste Perret planned the reconstruction on the drawing board using colored concrete. The city is now a place of pilgrimage for architecture lovers, as the famous architect Oscar Niemeyer also built here. Le Volcan is the cultural center, jokingly called the yogurt pot by the locals.

"Impression, Soleil Levant" What was special about the picture?

The painting was the first revolution, she says. Unlike all previous paintings, it had no real subject - it was not a still life, not a historical depiction, but simply a sunrise that was "sloppily" painted in the eyes of the critics. The painting also had no title.

"I was asked to give a title for the catalogue," Monet is said to have said, "since I could not call the painting 'View of Le Havre,' I said, 'Call it Impression.'"

In fact, the painting and its title, along with other landscapes by Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, led the journalist Louis Leroy to coin the term " Impressionists " when he wrote ironically about this new style of painting. But beyond this sarcasm, the term did not spread immediately and Monet's painting, which went almost unnoticed in 1874, did not become famous until the beginning of the 20th century.

What was modern about Impressionism?

I want to know from Géraldine Lefebvre.

"Firstly, very ordinary scenes were painted: landscapes, people sitting in a café, bathers.

After the Franco-Prussian War and the beginning of industrialization, it was perhaps this lightness that touched people.

The biggest innovation was the way the pictures were painted: “plein air” … outdoors and no longer in the studio.

With the easel, the painters braved wind and weather. Often they had to work quickly. Light, quick brushstrokes replaced photorealistic painting. What was initially frowned upon as inferior quality was soon recognized as an impressive visualization of light, clouds, water and reflections.

Click on the first picture to start the photo gallery of Honfleur:

Honfleur is a typical French seaside town , as you would imagine. There is a beautiful harbor and cobbled streets leading to the market square around the church of Sainte Catherine . There is a market here on Saturdays and a look at the stalls will make you hungry. The Ferme Saint-Siméon, a hotel on a hill with a wonderful view of the Seine estuary, was once a meeting place for Impressionist painters.

Self-experiment: Painting workshop on the coast of Normandy

We meet in the morning in the “plein air” in Yport for a painting workshop in Normandy with the artist Sophie Justet. None of us has ever painted with oil on canvas before.

We set up our easels on the beach, with the white canvas in front of us. We want to know how to start?

Sophie primes the canvas with a warm brown to create the coastline. "It doesn't matter if you want to paint the sea later. It's always better to start with a primer than with a white canvas." Then you slowly apply the warm tones and then work with the cooler colors on top. She explains to us what primary colors are and how to mix them to create secondary colors. We don't feel like too much theory in the stiff Norman breeze. We wait impatiently for her explanation before we can finally paint ourselves.

We quickly become engrossed in the depiction of clouds, cliffs and the different layers of air and sea, each with its own color. "Why don't you use a little green for the sea," she suggests to one participant. "Look at the rocks here. Maybe you need a little yellow," she advises the next.

We forget time and space. We don't care about the wind and cold when we're painting and we're amazed when the two hours are already over.
Géraldine Lefebvre Museum of Modern Art André Malraux le havre france

Immersing ourselves in Impressionism with a brush was just as impressive as using a virtual reality headset in Paris . We are almost a little proud to take our still-wet oil paintings with us as a souvenir of our journey through 150 years of art history.

Maybe Géraldine Lefebvre is right. When we asked her why Impressionism is probably still the most popular art form in the world today, she replied: "It is an apolitical style of art. They are beautiful paintings that represent light and nature. Each of us can identify with them and most people like them.

For me, impressionism is simply a style of art that is good for the soul.”

You can find more travel ideas for France here.


The 150th anniversary will be celebrated with its own festival. Exhibitions and events will take place in many cities and museums. All information at

The Musée d'art moderne André Malraux - MuMa will be showing "Photography in Normandy (1840-1890) - A pioneering dialogue between the arts" from May 25th to September 22nd, 2024. An exhibition that compares the beginnings of photography with those of Impressionism.

Sophie Justet Painter Workshop Normandy Impressionism

What to do:

Sophie Justet offers painting courses in Fécamp on the Alabaster Coast, suitable for beginners (in French). 4 hours cost 55€. Telephone: +33 (0)6 20 59 83 61

Getting there

The railway was an important means of transport for the Impressionists. The train journey from Paris to Le Havre takes less then 3 hours.

Eating & Sleeping

The Ferme Saint-Siméon in Honfleur was already a popular restaurant and hotel in the days of the Impressionists. They paid for their food and lodging with paintings that still hang in the rooms today. The cuisine is upscale and the service first-class. Double rooms with breakfast from €340.

The restaurant “Les enfants Sages” in Le Havre is a real rarity: it is located in a former school with a garden in the middle of the otherwise rebuilt city after the war. Here you can also rent tiny houses to stay overnight.

The Art Hotel in Le Havre is not the quietest, but is located in the city center, opposite Oscar Niemeyer's modern theater. Double rooms from €90.

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