Things to see and do - Normandy
Normandy Leisure tips
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Art and culture
Art and culture
The Norse, a people long considered barbaric, were in fact masters of wood-carving and metalworking, as their sophisticated domestic implements and fine jewellery testify. Over the centuries, their descendants produced the great Norman and Gothic religious architecture of the 11C to 13C, and later proved great innovators in the decorative arts, music (Saint-Saëns, Honegger, Satie), literature (Corneille, de Toqueville, de Maupassant, Flaubert, Maurois), painting (the 19C Impressionists) and, most recently, the cinema.
Norman building materials
Rouen and the towns of the Seine are built with chalky limestone from the valley sides. A similar affinity exists between the local materials and the buildings in the Caux region, where pebbles are set in flowing mortar. Clay, in cheap and plentiful local supply, was used for the cob of the timber-framed thatched cottages and for making bricks, which were often ingeniously set to make decorative patterns.
Romanesque (11C–Early 12C)
The Benedictines and romanesque design
In the 11C, immediately after the period of Viking invasions, the Benedictines returned to their task of clearing the land and constructing churches and other monastic buildings. These architect monks retained the robust building methods employed by the Carolingians and then embellished their constructions with the Oriental dome or the barrel vault used by the Romans for bridges and commemorative arches. This new architectural style, created by the Benedictines, was named Romanesque by Arcisse de Caumont, an archaeologist from Normandy, who in 1840 outlined the theory of regional schools of architecture. Despite its apparent simplicity Romanesque architecture is wonderfully diverse. In England the style is known as Norman.
Norman School and its abbey churches
The Benedictines, supported by the dukes of Normandy, played an immensely important part in the whole life of the province; only their work as architects and creators of the Norman School is described below.
The first religious buildings of importance in Normandy were the churches of the rich abbeys. Early monastic buildings may have disappeared or been altered, particularly after the Reform of St Maur, but examples of the Benedictine flowering have survived – the ruins of Jumièges Abbey and the churches on Mont-St-Michel, in Cerisy-la-Forêt, St-Martin-de-Boscherville as well as Église St-Étienne and Église de la Trinité in Caen.
The Norman School is characterised by pure lines, bold proportions, sober decoration and beautiful ashlared stonework. The style spread to England after the Norman Conquest. Durham Cathedral provides the first official example of quadripartite vaulting, erected at the beginning of the 12C. The Norman style is to be seen in Westminster Abbey, which was rebuilt by Edward the Confessor, in the two west towers and the square crossing tower of Canterbury Cathedral and in the cathedrals of Southwell, Winchester and Ely in England.
Norman architecture also appeared in Sicily in the 11C in the wake of noble Norman adventurers; in France it paved the way for the Gothic style.
The abbey churches are characterised by two towers on either side of the west front, giving the west face an H-like appearance, and a square lantern tower above the transept crossing, which also served to increase the light inside.
The towers, bare or decorated only with blind arcades below, get lighter with multiple pierced bays the higher they rise (in the 13C many were crowned by spires quartered by pinnacles). Charming country churches are often surmounted by Romanesque belfries, which are crowned with a saddleback roof or a four-sided squat wood or stone pyramid, the forerunner of the Gothic spire.
The interior light and size of Norman abbeys is very striking. The naves are wide with an elevation consisting of two series of openings above great semicircular arches – an amazingly bold concept for a Romanesque construction. The Norman monks eschewed the heavy barrel vault in favour of a beamed roof spanning the nave and galleries, reserving groined stone vaulting (the crossing of two semicircular arches) for the aisles. The vast galleries on the first level open onto the wide bays of the nave and repeat the design of the aisles. At clerestory level a gallery or passage in the thickness of the wall circles the church. A dome over the transept crossing supports a magnificent lantern tower which lets in the daylight through tall windows.
The abbey churches, like all others of Romanesque design, were illuminated on a considerable scale with gilding and bright colours as were the manuscripts of the time. The main themes were those of Byzantine iconography.
Norman sculptural decoration is essentially geometric; different motifs stand out, of which the most common is the key or fret pattern (straight lines meeting at right angles to form crenellated or rectangular designs). The decorative motifs are sometimes accompanied by mouldings, human heads or animal masks emphasising recessed arches, archivolts, cornices and mouldings. Sometimes the monks executed in low-relief motifs copied from cloth, ivories or metalwork brought back from the Orient; this is the origin of the cornerstones in the great arcade in Bayeux.
Capitals are rare and, where they exist, they are carved with gadroons or stylised foliage.
The style, conceived in Île-de-France, apart from quadripartite or rib vaulting, which originated in Norman England, was known as French work or French style until the 16C when the Italians of the Renaissance, who were resistant to the Parisian trend, scornfully dubbed it Gothic. The name survived. The French copied the H-shaped façades and great galleries of the Norman abbeys (the west front of Notre-Dame in Paris is based on that of the Église de la Trinité in Caen and its galleries on those of the Église St-Étienne).
Gothic is an ideal artistic style for cathedrals, as it symbolises the religious fervour of the people and the growing prosperity of the towns. In an all-embracing enthusiasm, a whole city would participate in the construction of the house of God. Under the enlightened guidance of bishops and master builders, all the guilds contributed to the cathedral’s embellishment: stained-glass makers, painters, wood and stone carvers went to work. The doors became the illustrated pages of history.
Gothic architecture in Normandy
Gradually the national Gothic style percolated into Normandy before the province was seized by Philippe Auguste in 1204.
In the 13C the Gothic and traditional Norman styles merged. The best example of this fusion is Coutances Cathedral, where the pure proportions and the lofty austerity of the Norman style combine with Gothic sophistication as in the lantern tower. This was also the period of the superb belfries of the Caen and Bessin plains, typified by their tall stone spires, often pierced to offer less resistance to the wind, and quartered with pinnacles.
The magnificent Merveille buildings of Mont-St-Michel give an idea of total Norman Gothic ornamentation. Sobriety provides the foundation over which foliated sculpture reigns supreme; plants of every variety decorate the round capitals, cover the cornerstones and garland the friezes. The three- and four-leafed clover in relief or hollowed out is a frequent motif but statuary is rare. Lisieux Cathedral and the Tour St-Romain of Rouen Cathedral show the degree of French Gothic influence in Normandy by the end of the 12C.
The flamboyant style
By the 14C, the period of great cathedral building had come to an end. The Hundred Years War (1337–1453) killed architectural inspiration; bits were added, buildings were touched up, but little created. When the war was over a taste for virtuosity alone remained – and the Flamboyant style was born. Rouen is the true capital of the Flamboyant, which was particularly widespread in Haute-Normandie.
In this new style, the tracery of bays and rose windows resembles wavering flames – the derivation of the term Flamboyant. The Flamboyant style produced such single masterpieces as the Église St-Maclou in Rouen, the Tour de Beurre of Rouen Cathedral, the belfries of Notre-Dame in Caudebec and La Madeleine in Verneuil-sur-Avre. Civil architecture developed in importance and passed from Flamboyant to Renaissance – a change symbolised in the gables, pinnacles and balustrades of the Palais de Justice in Rouen.
In medieval Normandy permission to build a castle was granted to the barons by the ruling duke, who, prudent as well as powerful, reserved the right to billet his own garrison inside and forbade all private wars. Over the years the building of castles along the duchy’s frontiers was encouraged – Richard Lionheart secured the Seine with the most formidable fortress of the period, Château-Gaillard.
Originally only the austere keeps were inhabited, but from the 14C a courtyard and more pleasing quarters were constructed within the fortifications. This evolution can be seen in the castles at Alençon, and Dieppe and some of the Perche manor houses.
A taste for comfort and adornment appeared in civil architecture; wealthy merchants and burgesses built tall houses where wide eaves protected half-timbered upper storeys that overhung stone-walled ground floors. The results were as capricious as they were picturesque: corner posts, corbels and beams were decorated with lively and fantastic carvings.
The Renaissance (16C)
Georges I d’Amboise, Archbishop of Rouen and patron of the arts, introduced Italian taste and usage to Normandy. The new motifs – arabesques, foliated scrollwork, medallions, shells, urns, etc. – were combined with Flamboyant art. Among the outstanding works of this period is the chevet of the Église St-Pierre in Caen, a masterpiece of exuberance.
Castles, manor houses and old mansions
The Renaissance style reached its fullest grace in domestic architecture. At first, older buildings were ornamented in the current taste or a new and delicately decorated wing was added (Château d’O and the château at Fontaine-Henry); fortifications were replaced by parks and gardens.
The Classicism rediscovered by humanists took hold so that architects aimed for correct proportion and the imposition of the three Classical Orders of Antiquity.
Imperceptibly the search for symmetry and correctness produced aridity; fantasy was stifled by pomposity.
In Normandy, the Gothic spirit survived, appearing most successfully in small manor houses and innumerable country houses with sham feudal moats, turrets and battlements incorporated in either half timbering or stone and brick.
Norman towns contain many large stone Renaissance mansions. The outer façade is always plain and one must enter the courtyard to see the architectural design and the rich decoration (Hôtel d’Escoville, Caen; Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde, Rouen).
In the 16C decoration became richer and less impulsive but the half-timbered construction technique remained the same. Many of these old houses have been carefully restored and there are good examples in Alençon, Bayeux, Bernay, Caen, Domfront, Honfleur, Pont-Audemer, Verneuil-sur-Avre and Rouen.
In this period, French architectural style, now a single concept and no longer an amalgam of individual techniques, imposed its rationalism on many countries beyond its borders.
Louis XIII and the “Jesuit Style”
The reign of Henri IV marked an artistic rebirth. An economical method of construction was adopted in which bricks played an important part: it was a time of beautiful châteaux with plain rose and white façades and steep grey-blue slate roofs.
The first decades of the 17C coincided with the Counter-Reformation. The Jesuits built many colleges and chapels – cold and formal edifices, their façades characterised by superimposed columns, a pediment and upturned consoles or small pavilions joining the front of the main building to the sides.
The Grand Siècle in Normandy
The symmetrical façades of the Classical style demanded space for their appreciation as in the châteaux at Cany, Beaumesnil, Balleroy and elsewhere. The Benedictine abbeys, which had adopted the Maurist Reform (the Benedictine Congregation of St Maur was founded in 1621), rediscovered their former inspiration. At the beginning of the 18C, the monastery buildings of the Abbaye-aux-Hommes in Caen and at Le Bec-Hellouin were remodelled by a brother architect and sculptor, Guillaume de la Tremblaye . The original plan was conserved but the design and decoration were given an austere nobility.
The urban scene was transformed by the construction of magnificent bishops’ palaces, town halls with wide façades and large private houses.
Following the extensive destruction caused by World War II many towns and villages in Normandy were rebuilt in the mid-20C in accordance with the precepts of modern town planning. A good example of successful reconstruction is Aunay-sur-Odon, with its large and imposing church.
Auguste Perret (1874–1954), the architect who pioneered the use of reinforced concrete construction, was appointed Chief Architect for the reconstruction of Le Havre; his works include the modern district of Le Havre and the Église St-Joseph. His work makes use of textured concrete and is designed to take the best advantage of natural light.
Normandy is a region of innovation as well; in Le Havre, note the Espace Oscar-Niemeyer , named after the Brazilian architect as an example. Two surprising white structures evoke a volcano, and stand out in contrast to the buildings designed by Perret. The Musée des Beaux-Arts André-Malraux, also in Le Havre, resembles a glass ship at anchor. In Rouen, the renovation of place du Vieux-Marché in the 1970s included the construction of the Église Ste-Jeanne-d’Arc, based on a design by Louis Arretche. The roof of the church is in the shape of a boat hull (upside down).
Three of Normandy’s bridges are also noteworthy examples of modern architecture: the Tancarville bridge was inaugurated in 1959, the Brotonne bridge in 1977, and the colossal Pont de Normandie , spanning the Seine estuary, opened in 1995. The most recent bridge is not only a boon to travellers, it is also a work of art and a technological feat, a milestone of civil engineering. It is a cable-stayed bridge, more elegant and cheaper to build than a suspension bridge, made of steel and concrete, able to withstand winds of 440kph/274mph.
Normandy is often associated with half-timbered houses. The basic box frame is essentially composed of horizontal and vertical beams, but there are very often different local methods of construction. Footings or a base of some solid material is laid to prevent damp from rising. A wooden sill or horizontal beam is laid along this base to ensure the correct spacing of the upright posts or studs. It is divided into as many sections as there are intervals between the vertical posts. The upper horizontal beam, sometimes known as a summer or bressumer, consists of a single beam. Along the gable ends it is known as a tie-beam. Bricks are often ingeniously used to make attractive patterns between the timbers.
Roofing materials such as thatch, which is so vulnerable to fire, and shingles of sweet chestnut, are becoming increasingly rare. The schist slabs of the Cotentin are a typical part of the landscape. The slate which has been used since the 18C for houses and outbuildings alike has a silver tinge. A watertight roof depends on the correct hanging of the slates. The appearance of the villages is conditioned by the local materials used and the trades of the various villagers. One well-known building material, Caen stone , is quarried from the Jurassic deposits. It can be either friable or durable and varies in colour through grey and off-white to its more characteristic light creamy colour. The ashlar blocks are divided into two groups, one with the grain running vertically for façades, corner stones and gables and the second with a horizontal grain for courses and cornices.
In the open landscape of the Caen plain the typical courtyard farms are surrounded by high walls. A gateway gives access to the courtyard with the one- or two-storeyed farmhouse at the far end. The smaller crofts usually consist of two buildings, one long house for the living quarters and cowshed or barn and another for the stable or byre.
The farm buildings of the Bessin stand round a large courtyard that has two entrances, side by side, one for wheeled vehicles and a second for people. The house stands at the far end with the service and outbuildings to the right and left. There is usually a well in the middle. Built of limestone or Jurassic marls, the house has a pristine appearance. The windows are tall and wide; the roofing is either tiles or slates.
The small flat-tiled houses in the Argentan area have symmetrical façades. The buildings are usually a harmonious mixture of schist, brick (chimneys and window surrounds) and limestone (the walls). Some are surrounded by walls or a screen of vegetation. Large barns are frequently adjoined by sheds.
Brick and small laminated schist tiles predominate in the Sées countryside. Sometimes the buildings fit snugly one against the other, creating a jumble of roofs of varying pitch.
The farms in the region of Alençon are built around an open courtyard. The infinitely varied architecture reflects the wide range of rocks: granite, schist, flint, clay and kaolin.
The most common house type in the Falaise countryside is akin to those found in the Caen region. The walled courtyard predominates. The brick chimney replaces the rubblework one and tiles are used for roofs in the area bordering the Auge region.
The houses in the Suisse Normande are built of schist known as Pont-de-la-Mousse slate quarried near Thury-Harcourt and the settlements often have the rugged appearance of mountain villages. In the Orne Valley the houses huddle closely together on the flats whereas those on the slopes are scattered, even isolated.
The farm courtyard in the Vire bocage is often planted with apple and pear trees. On either side of the farmhouse are the barns, cattle sheds and outbuildings for the cider press. Brown or red schist is the main building stone.
In the 19C, the coast became a popular destination and bathing in the sea a novel pastime. Wealthy patrons ordered quirky houses for their holiday pleasures. Sometimes they were built in or near existing fishing villages, and in other places whole resort communities sprang up. Many of these villas are still standing along the coast at Cabourg, Houlgate, Villers, Deauville, Trouville, Villerville, Ste-Adresse, Étretat, Dieppe, Le Tréport, Mers-les-Bains etc. Generally, they are remarkable for their multicoloured façades, busy with balconies, bow windows, railings, gables and other decorative elements.
A profusion of skylights, projecting eaves and rooftop finials adds to the exuberance. Other models are more reserved and even stately, recalling the Renaissance style. Some are more modestly termed chalets, and are said to be in the Swiss, Spanish or Persian style, depending on their features.
The practice of keeping pigeons, formerly known as doves, dates back to the earliest civilisations. Although domestication is believed to have originated around 4500 BC, the practice became widespread some 2 000 years later, in ancient Egypt, where pigeon was appreciated for its succulent flesh, a fact evidenced by the many frescoes of feasts and banquets.
The carrier pigeon
The carrier pigeon is mostly known for its military role in times of war. News of the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar was relayed to the capital by means of pigeons, as was Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. During the Siege of Paris in 1870, 400 birds helped defend the city by carrying tiny strips of film attached to their claws.
More recently, during World War I, English troops entrusted some 10 000 messages to their feathered friends. Several warrior birds became legendary figures and some were even awarded a military decoration: The Mocker, Lord Adelaide, Burma Queen etc. The cities of Brussels and Lille have erected memorials to these worthy messengers.
The homing pigeon
In the early 19C, a new sport appeared in Belgium – pigeon racing, in which birds are trained to return to their home loft after being released in the wild. The first long-distance race (160km/99.4mi) was held in 1818 and the sport gradually gained prominence in Great Britain, France and the United States. Today, many French villages have their own Pigeon-Fanciers Club (Société Colombophile) and organise races regularly.
For the birds
A familiar sight in Normandy, especially in the Pays de Caux, is the dovecote (colombier) . Norman dovecotes are square, polygonal or round; the last type is the most common. The door is at ground level, usually rectangular but sometimes rounded at the top and often surmounted by the arms of the owner. The projecting ledge halfway up (larmier) is designed to prevent the entry of rodents. There are openings for the pigeons all round. The roofs, conical on circular dovecotes and faceted on square or polygonal dovecotes, are often covered with slates. The lead finial may be in the shape of a pigeon or a weathervane.
The interior is lined with pigeon-holes (boulins) – one hole for each pair of pigeons – and the number varies according to the wealth of the owner. They are reached by a ladder fixed to an arm attached to a central post which pivots on a hard stone. In some dovecotes only the upper part is intended for pigeons; the lower part may be used as a hen house or a sheep pen. When the two parts are separated by a wooden floor, the door to the upper part is above the stone rat ledge and reached by an external detachable ladder.
There are two kinds of dovecote. The standard or classic type is built of ashlar stone (not common), in an attractive contrast to black flint and white stone (north and northeast of Le Havre), in brick, black flint and ashlar stone (brick tended to replace black flint after the 17C), or in brick and stone (fairly common). The type of dovecote called secondary includes buildings in light coloured flint (a similar shade to ashlar stone), in flint and stone, or in flint, brick and stone.
The first known laws on pigeon breeding were instituted in the Middle Ages. In Normandy, the owners of fiefs were the only ones entitled to build dovecotes. This right, known as the droit de colombier , was abolished on 4 August 1789 and very few new dovecotes were built after the French Revolution.
A total of 535 were officially registered in the Seine-Maritime in the early 20C. However, many have been abandoned and are now in a state of neglect. The French government and local authorities have recently taken measures to finance the restoration of these charming buildings, which are an essential part of Normandy’s rural heritage.
Ceramics and pottery
The glazed pavement in the chapter house of St-Pierre-sur-Dives (13C) demonstrates the long tradition of ceramic art in Normandy. In the mid-16C Masséot Abaquesne was making decorated tiles, which were greatly prized in Rouen, whereas potteries in Le Pré-d’Auge and Manerbe (near Lisieux) were producing “earthenware more beautiful than is made elsewhere”. In 1644 Rouen faïence made its name with blue decoration on a white ground and white on blue.
By the end of the century production had increased so that when the royal plate was melted down to replenish the Treasury, “the Court changed to chinaware in a week” (Saint-Simon). The so-called radiant style is reminiscent of the wrought-iron work and embroidery for which the town was well known. The desire for novelty brought in the vogue for chinoiserie. In the middle of the 18C came the Rococo style with its quiver decoration and the famous Rouen cornucopia, a horn of plenty overflowing with flowers, birds and insects. This industry was ruined by the 1786 trade treaty, which allowed the import of English chinaware into France.
Sideboards, longcase clocks and wardrobes – the three most characteristic and traditional pieces of furniture in Normandy – are valued for their elegance, solidity and generous proportions.
The wardrobe, which gradually replaced the medieval chest, first appeared in the 13C; by the beginning of the 17C the sideboard was already in existence and in the 18C longcase clocks became widespread. The golden age of furniture making in Normandy produced well-proportioned and delicately carved sideboards or kitchen dressers; coffin clocks (broader at the top than at the bottom); longcase clocks characterised by carved baskets of fruit and flowers round the clockface; tall pendulum clocks, with delicately chased dials in gilt bronze, copper, pewter or enamel; majestic oak wardrobes, ornamented with finely worked fittings, in brass or other metals, or with medallions, surmounted with carved cornices of doves, birds’ nests, ears of corn, flowers and fruit or Cupid’s quiver, etc.
The wardrobe was often part of a young woman’s dowry and contained her trousseau; its transfer from her parents’ house to her new home was the occasion for traditional celebrations.
Painting took first place among the arts in 19C France. Landscape totally eclipsed historical and stylised painting and Normandy was to become the cradle of Impressionism.
The open air
While the Romantics were discovering inland Normandy, Eugène Isabey, a lover of seascapes, began to work on the still deserted coast. Richard Bonington (1801–28), an English painter who went to France as a boy, trained there, and, in his watercolours, captured the wetness of sea beaches.
In the second half of the 19C artistic activity was concentrated on Eugène Boudin (1824–98) round the Côte de Grâce. This painter from Honfleur, named King of the Skies by Corot, encouraged a young 15-year-old from Le Havre, Claude Monet , to drop caricature for the joys of real painting and urged his Parisian friends to come and stay in his St-Siméon farmstead.
The younger painters, nevertheless, were to outstrip their elders in their search for pictorial light. They wanted to portray the vibration of light, hazes, the trembling of reflections and shadows, the depth and tenderness of the sky, the fading of colours in full sunlight. They – Monet, Sisley, Bazille and their Paris friends, Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne and Guillaumin especially – were about to form the Impressionist School, which gave France a front rank in the history of painting.
From 1862 to 1869 the Impressionists remained faithful to the Normandy coast and the Seine estuary. After the Franco-Prussian War they returned only occasionally – although it was in Normandy, at Giverny, that Claude Monet set up house in 1881 and remained until he died in 1926.
Impressionism, in its turn, gave birth to a new school, Pointillism , which divided the tints with little touches of colour, applying the principle of the division of white light into seven basic colours, to get ever closer to a luminous effect. Seurat and Signac, the pioneers of this method, also came to Normandy to study its landscapes.
In the early 20C Fauvism was born as a reaction against Impressionism and neo-Impressionism. These brightly coloured linear compositions exploded on the canvas.
For half a century, therefore, the Côte de Grâce, the Pays de Caux, Deauville, Trouville and Rouen were the sources of inspiration of a multitude of paintings.
A pleiad of painters
Numerous artists still came to Normandy in the first half of the 20C, notably Valloton and Gernez (the latter died in Honfleur); Marquet, who had worked in Gustave Moreau’s studio in Paris; Othon Friesz, who particularly enjoyed Honfleur, which he portrayed in its many aspects; and Van Dongen, painter of the worldly and the elegant and a frequent guest at Deauville.
Marquet, Friesz and Van Dongen were strongly influenced by Fauvism, whereas Raoul Dufy , a native of Le Havre, soon overthrew accepted convention to associate line drawing and richness of colour in compositions which were full of movement.
Literature and architecture both sprang from the monasteries. It is therefore hardly surprising that Normandy and its abbeys became rich in literary activity from the 13C. Monks and clergymen with a sound knowledge of history and legend, together with travellers and pilgrims, provided the poets with the inspiration needed to create the Christian epics known as the chansons de geste. Such verse appeared chronologically after the early hagiographic literature (lives of saints) but remains one of the first examples of the use of French as a literary mode of expression. In the 12C the Anglo-Norman Robert Wace , who was born in Jersey but brought up in Caen, wrote two notable verse chronicles. Le Roman du Rou (1160–74) was commissioned by Henry II of England and is a history of the dukes of Normandy.
Pierre Corneille (1606–84) is often called the father of French Classical tragedy. His main works are known together as the classical tetralogy: (1637), Horace (1640), Cinna (1641) and Polyeucte (1643).
The dramatist enjoyed a happy life with his extended family in Rouen (he married and had seven children; his brother married his wife’s sister and their households were very close), and despite occasional brushes with the authorities, his plays were generally well received. Balzac praised him, Molière acknowledged him as his master and the foremost of dramatists, Racine lauded his talent for versification. From the 20C viewpoint, it is clear that Corneille also had a great impact on the rise of comedy, and in the development of drama in general, in particular in regard to his ability to depict personal and moral forces in conflict.
Born in Le Havre, Bernardin de St-Pierre (1737–1814) travelled the world to fulfil his dreams, and spent part of his life on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. In Paris, he became the disciple of the Romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His best-known works are Paul and Virginie (1787) and Studies of Nature (1784).
The founder of Norman regionalism is Barbey d’Aurevilly (1808–99), a nobleman from Cotentin, who was born in St-Sauveur-le-Vicomte. In a warm and bright style, illuminated with brilliant imagery and original phrases, he sought, like the Impressionists, to convey the atmosphere, the quality, the uniqueness of his region. Valognes, the town where he spent most of his adolescence, is mentioned in several of his works ( Ce qui ne meurt pas , Chevalier des Touches and Les Diaboliques ) .
Although born in Paris, Charles Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59) was from an old Norman family. It was during stays at the ancestral home, the Château de Tocqueville, not far from Cherbourg, that he wrote many of the works which were to bring him fame. This political scientist, politician and historian is best-known for his timeless classic Democracy in America.
Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), a prime mover of the Realist School of French literature, considered art as a means to knowledge. His masterful Madame Bovary (1857), a portrait of bourgeois life in the provinces, took him five years to complete. The French government sought to block its publication and have the author condemned for immorality – he narrowly escaped conviction.
Flaubert greatly influenced Guy de Maupassant (1850–93), a family friend born in Dieppe who regarded himself as the older author’s apprentice. Maupassant’s work is thoroughly realistic, the language lucidly pure and the imagery sharp and precise. The author wrote best-selling novels ( Une Vie , Bel-Ami , Pierre et Jean ), but his greatest achievement lies in his short stories; many of these works are considered among the finest in French literature. Today, he is one of the most widely read French authors in English-speaking countries.
Octave Mirbeau (1848–1917), from Trévières near Bayeux, was an active participant in the literary and political quarrels of his time, speaking out in defence of anarchist ideas. As a novelist, he was fiercely critical of the social conditions of the time, and his work Journal of a Lady’s Maid ( Le Journal d’une femme de chambre ,1900) is typical of this attitude.
Maurice Leblanc (1864–1941), born in Rouen, created the gentleman burgler Arsène Lupin. A museum in Étretat is devoted to this still-popular author.
André Maurois (1865–1967), born Émile Herzog in Elbeuf, is known for his war memoires, novels, biographies of literary figures such as Disraeli, Shelley, Victor Hugo, Balzac and Proust, and historical works ( History of England , 1937, History of the United States , 1943).
Alain (1868–1951), made a name for himself by his columns in a Rouen newspaper. A professor of philosophy and author of many essays, he revolted against all forms of tyranny. His works Remarks on Happiness (1928) and Remarks on Education (1932) are noteworthy.
Jean de la Varende (1887–1959), from the Ouche region, evokes in his novels the Normandy of yesteryear. His work Par Monts et Merveilles de Normandie is a description of all he saw and admired in the region.
André Breton (1896–1966), from Tinchebray in the Orne, was a poet, essayist and “Pope“ of the Surrealist movement. His work, including Nadja (1928), L’Amour Fou (1937) and two Surrealist manifestos, stirred up, as intended, intense controversy.
Armand Salacrou (1899–1989), born in Rouen, called his dramatic works a “meditation on the human condition”. He experimented with different dramatic styles. Two of his popular successes were Un homme comme les autres (1926) and Boulevard Durand (1961).
Raymond Queneau (1903–76) was born in Le Havre and achieved distinction as the director of the prestigious Encyclopédie de la Pléiade , a scholarly edition of past and present authors.
As the author of many poems, novels and plays, Queneau stands out for his quirky style and verbal juggling, revealing the absurdity that underlies our everyday world. One of his best-loved works, Zazie dans le métro (1959), was made into a charming film.
Composer of operas and comic operas, François-Adrien Boieldieu (1775–1834) was born in Rouen. His work The Caliph of Baghdad (1800) earned him a glowing reputation throughout Europe. From 1803 to 1810 he was Director of Music at the Imperial Opera of St Petersburg. His talent was universally recognised with his masterpiece La Dame Blanche in 1825. Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) was born in Paris, but his father was from Normandy. A brilliant pianist, he composed symphonies, operas, concertos and religious works. His most famous works include the Danse Macabre (1875) and Samson et Dalila (1877).
Arthur Honegger (1892–1955) was born in Le Havre, of Swiss origin. At first he composed melodies to poems by Cocteau, Apollinaire and Paul Fort, then Pacific 231 (1923) and King David (1924). Joan at the Stake (1935) and The Dance of the Dead (1938) have texts by Paul Claudel.
Born in Honfleur, Erik Satie (1866–1925) began as a pianist in the cabarets of Montmartre (The Black Cat), where he met Debussy. Sarcasm and irony permeate his works, his greatest being the symphonic drama Socrates (1918) for voice and orchestra based on texts by Plato. Satie exerted an undeniable influence both on his time and on musicians such as Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky.