Vallée des Peintres, Part II: The story of "the confluence"

This is NOT one of the famous Claude Monet series, "Les Eaux Semblantes" (believed to be shortened by locals from " Assemblantes" or "assembled" waters), the 23 canvasses he painted over almost three months while staying in the town of Fresselines March-May, 1889.  This was his subject: the confluence of the Creuse and Petit Creuse rivers (Google to see his versions).  This is the first painting I bought for my new home in Argenton-sur-Creuse, painted by a local amateur (a former local train station manager, I was told), pulled from a pile of frames on the dusty floor of a neighborhood indoor "brocante" (some would say "antique", others "collectibles", and still others, "junk" store).

But I liked it -- I liked the feel, the colors (i.e, goes well with my salon -- living room -- décor) and most of all, I liked that it was my introduction to THE VIEW painted by just about every impressionist and post-impressionist who came to this "Vallée des Peintres" (Painters' Valley) between 1830 and 1930, and since.  The "confluent" (in French), the ruins of the nearby fortress in Crozant, and along the Sedelle River (for latter two, see the Part I of this entry) were the favored subjects, along with some other local paysages (landscapes).

It was the 19th century woman writer George Sand (née Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) who was born in the area in 1804 and then returned in 1827 to live in her family home with Chopin, who brought renown to the area, loving it so that she invited her many artist and writer friends in Paris to visit her in Nohant-Vic (where I visited a few years ago).  As well as she was known as a writer and promoter of this region, she was and remains best known for her, uh, "unconventional" lifestyle, which included cross-dressing and having many lovers, both men and women.

After visiting the Sedelle, I wanted to round out my local art education by going to Fresselines, visiting the newly re-opened Monet-Rollinat Museum  and seeing the confluence, to find out for myself what all the fuss was about.

But first....I was tracing the landscape course frequented by the impressionists over a century, moving south and southeast from Argenton.  My first stop was Le Menoux, where I stumbled upon a Sunday street "vide grenier", a form of brocante that translates literally in English as "empty attic"; the French adore ALL types of flea markets and second-hand shops, no matter what they're called. (Brocantes are actually widely listed and advertised. I just don't happen to make a point of going because I find they're mostly junk, though great places to mix with the locals.)

I loved this -- two women greeting each other awkwardly, but traditionally: "faire la bise" is to give that two-cheek kiss that everyone does, men and women.
The village's church was my actual "Vallée des Peintres" destination.

To me, this is an iconic shot of transport à la mode française! Note the flag on the  car, and the baguette on the moto!

As mentioned in caption above, the church was my actual destination, for its amazing "fresques" painted in the 1970s by a Bolivian artist, Jorge Carrasco, whose widow remains a resident of Le Menoux. Note:  "fresques" or "frescos" are painted on wet plaster; "murales", or "murals", are painted on the dried wall (in Italian, it's "secco"), but the French seem to use the term "fresque" regardless.

Next destination, the "Boucle du Pin" (pine buckle), the curvature of the Creuse River that George Sand described as a horseshoe, just outside the village of Badecon-le-Pin.  I saw a sign that pointed toward the hiking trail, so figured I had to do some climbing to get down to see the view.  But it was steep, and rocky, and I became covered in spider (or some kind of) webs and, I subsequently discovered, creepy-crawlies (larvae?).  I turned back, disappointed, doing the Gallic shrug: Oh, well, guess I won't see that.

But I was wrong.  Traveling a bit further along the main road, there were not only tourist signs, but a photo of a more historical view, and a bench on which to sit and see the "boucle", though its horseshoe shaped curve was obscured by the summer foliage:

Next stop, Gargilesse, one of France's "Plus Beaux Villages" (official designation of "Most Beautiful Villages").  It had been recommended that I be sure to go into the 12C church and down into the crypt, to see the original frescoes and murals (see note above about the difference) -- the frescoes from the XII c., and the murals from the XV c..  The statue of Virgin and Child is reputedly from the XII c, "procured" during the Crusades.

The chateau next door was closed until much later in the afternoon, but I took a pictures of it, of the view down from it, and of the house across the little plaza, which had been the home of artist Henri Jamet (1858-1901) and his son, singer and photographer Pierre Jamet (1910-2000).

 I then walked down a few meters and to the left to George Sand's little house (next to the lovely house marked "pottery"),  her tiny country getaway that she ironically called "Villa Algira" (Algira being an African butterfly). She lived there quietly with her final lover, the much younger Alexandre Manceau, but it was also an occasional home to her son, Maurice Sand, also a celebrated writer and artist.  She did much of her writing there, and interestingly, there were no guests -- none of the social life she enjoyed at the Nohant estate.  I could not take pictures inside,  but you can see a bit for yourself here.

A brief stop a few doors down at Hôtel George Sand (what else?) for a delicious lunch of local chèvre (goat cheese) en croute, and then "bonne continuation"(literally, "good continuation" is said when you're doing a road trip)...

After a number of wrong turns and (self) ill-advised detours (I like to use real maps and guidebooks, plus ask directions; resort to GPS only when lost, or need to find a way out of town), I made it to Fresselines and Espace Monet-Rollinat.  I initially liked the newly renovated museum, dedicated to Monet and the poet Maurice Rollinat (who invited Monet to the area in the first place), but after hearing the complaints of other visitors (and asking them to clarify for me, since this was in French and I wanted to be sure I got the nuances), I realized I agreed with their assessment that there was too much text, NO paintings by Monet, and too much emphasis on contemporary art of non-local artists, when there were so many originally or still from the area.  This actually was quite an interesting excercise for me -- debating the pros and cons of an exhibit -- and I enjoyed it enormously.

Painting "en plein air" (outdoors) had become increasingly popular in the second half of the 19th century as the result of three events:  the railroad (especially after the opening of the Paris-Limoges railroad line in 1856, bringing tourists and artists alike to this area), the invention of metal paint tubes (1841, and commercialized in France in 1859), and the development of lighter and collapsible easels.

Monet, the "father of impressionism" (fascinating history about the development of this art movement), came to the valley in March of 1889 and stayed for almost three months, finishing 23 canvasses, mostly of the "confluent" of the Creuse and Petit Creuse rivers.  

It's a wonderful story, but here's the end to it:  Monet's stay in Fresselines (he actually never went to, much less painted, Crozant or the Sedelle, as the other artists did) launched him into the "series" work for which he is so well known.  The weather here that year (well, and this past year, too!), was so horrific for painting -- constant changes in light due to the never-ending rain -- that Monet kept more than a dozen canvasses "en cours" (in progress) simultaneously -- of the same view!  He found the work exhausting, time consuming, frustrating and extremely stressful, as he was preparing for an exhibit later in the year in Paris, and needed to show his work in order to sell it because he had a large family to support and many debts.  He constantly complained about the conditions in Fresselines in letters to his (second) wife, Alice Hoschedé.

Now it was my turn to see this legendary view.  I headed through the main square, down the path, through some woods along the river, and finally arrived at the famous confluence, where families, couples and dogs were picnicking, playing and wading...

This is NOT the famous tree!  See story below.

Well, truthfully, I couldn't see what the big deal was -- there are plenty of views as nice, or even lovelier, all around here, and how he ever found it...?!  These are not easily accessible sites, especially 130 years ago!

Now, go back to the painting at the top of this blog entry -- the one I bought.  See the tree?  Now go up two pictures in the group above -- see all the foliage around the confluence?  Well, in 1889 the area was more stone than vegetation, and the oak tree (chêne) that Monet actually painted is no longer in the spot where it was in 1889, when it was barely more than a sapling.  That tree became part of the lore of the site because it was the only tree in sight for artists to paint.  In March of that year it was still almost winter-bare...but by May, when Monet was frustratingly still here because of the bad painting weather he'd had to endure, the tree had of course started to bloom.  That simply would not do.  So Monet paid 50 francs (appx. $280 in today's money) to the owner of the inn where he was staying to pluck the leaves off the tree!  The innkeeper had workers do that, and voilà, the artist's image of the tree has remained ever since.

But the tree that one sees today and which is in photo above -- big and aged -- is NOT, as many believe (and think they're painting) the famous oak. This one is apparently a "tilleul" (lime tree).  But the legend lives on...

The painters, photographers and writers kept coming to the valley in the early 20th century, and so did the tourists -- so many that in a letter dated May 8, 1920, the Sedelle River valley artist Armand Guillaumin wrote (my translation): "Summer is here.  The land will be full of stupid tourists and more or less annoying painters."

But in 1926, the character of the land changed.  In 1926, the Eguzon dam ("barrage") was built, taming the once mighty, forceful Creuse River and its tributaries into a compliant source of electricity for Paris and elsewhere. 

Many attribute the artistic disaffection with the Creuse Valley to the building of the dam, but I love this summation from a tourist guide brochure (my translation): 

"The art world isn't formed by a succession of artistic currents, but rather evolves from the intersections of different movements that for the most part turn away from the 'codes' of their predecessors.  The (works of the ) first generation of impressionists (from 1872), have mostly disappeared except for Monet and Guillaumin.  Whereas those older painters were saddened by (the disappearance of) a landscape that no longer existed, the new generation isn't hanging on to that.  The young painters want to innovate and take part in a modernity that brings cities to life.  The countryscapes don't interest them -- only the urban landscapes and their artificial lights.  The world keeps turning, keeps moving, and the Creuse Valley is no longer the "eaux vivants" -- lively waters -- but has transformed into the "eaux calmes"-- calm waters."

A la prochaine -- 



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