Discover Le Havre, Where Impressionism Was Born

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As the fog of dawn lifted one morning in mid-November 1872, Claude Monet looked out the window of his hotel room in the French city of Le Havre and furiously painted his vision of its industrial harbor. He flung his brush with quick strokes and played with the water, stretching it with rays of color.

In one sitting, he created “Impression, Sunrise,” a painting of a vivid orange sun with its reflection shimmering in the sea.

In 1874, Monet, who grew up in Le Havre on the Normandy coast, included the painting in an exhibition of 30 artists’ work organized in response to the Paris Salon, an annual showcase of academic art. The critic Louis Leroy denounced “The Exhibition of the Impressionists” and mocked the title of Monet’s painting. “An impression, I’m sure,” he wrote. “I thought to myself, this has made an impression on me so there must be impressions somewhere in there.”

This year, France is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the movement. In Paris, the Musée d’Orsay is exhibiting 130 works from and related to the 1874 exhibition and offering a one-hour immersive tour with virtual reality headsets. It is sending 178 other works to more than 30 museums throughout France.

The Musée Marmottan, which owns “Impression, Sunrise,” has agreed to lend it to the Orsay until July for its exhibition “Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism” and to the National Gallery in Washington where the exhibition travels in September.

But to discover a fresh and unexpected view of Impressionism requires a visit to Le Havre, France’s most important seaport and its most underappreciated big city.

Once there was a direct New York-to-Le Havre route on the French Line, whose luxury cruise liners pampered rich Americans with fancy suites and fine French cuisine. Le Havre was their first point of entry into the Old World.

But in more recent times, cruises and tour operators preferred to take their passengers to the Normandy beaches and to charming, quaint Honfleur on the other side of the Seine estuary, rather than to gritty Le Havre. Even today, many Parisians have never visited.

“It used to be that people who came from Le Havre rarely admitted it,” said Édouard Philippe, the mayor of Le Havre and a former French prime minister, in an interview. “People made fun of them. A bit like how people from New Jersey got used to being made fun of because they lived on industrial land that was less beautiful than New York. That all changed. Le Havre is now in fashion.”

To prove his point, he picked up a coffee mug with an intersecting L and H — the new emblem of Le Havre that adorns products — like T-shirts and tote bags — sold throughout the city.

It’s worth a trip to Le Havre just to visit the Musée d’Art Moderne André Malraux, which opened in 1961.

With its white walls, steel frame and floor-to-ceiling glass facade that gives a view out to the sea, the museum allows visitors to revel in the light — luminous and somber — produced by the fickle weather of Normandy. A second-floor balcony that looks out over the museum’s outdoor esplanade and the sea adds to the feeling of openness.

“There was a desire from the beginning to make the museum open to the great spectacle of the changing elements outside,” said Géraldine Lefebvre, the museum’s director.

MuMa, as it is called, has arguably the most important collection of Impressionist paintings in France outside the Musée d’Orsay (Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Arts makes the same claim). MuMa’s collection is also home to some of the world’s most famous paintings from the Fauvist movement that followed. And unlike the gridlocked Orsay, MuMa is always gloriously undervisited.

“Go to the Orsay, and then come here,” said Ms. Lefebvre. “We battle a little with Rouen, but in terms of the numbers of works and their quality, we are No. 2.”

Ms. Lefebvre has studied and written about Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise.” She worked for a year with Donald Olson, a Texas State University astronomer and physics professor who used topographical, meteorological and astrological studies to calculate the precise date and time of its creation. According to Dr. Olson, she said, Monet painted it at 7:35 a.m. on Nov. 13, 1872.

The Hotel de l’Amirauté, where Monet stayed when he painted “Impression, Sunrise,” is long gone — replaced by a modern apartment building with a bar-bistro and a gift shop on the ground floor.

Ms. Lefebvre and I visited the site, and she captured the scene: “It was winter; the temperature was freezing. The wind was blowing from the west. The light was just coming up from the sea. The moment the sun came up, he worked in one great burst of energy.”

Le Havre is not an ancient city like Paris. When the French king François I created the port of Le Havre in 1517, priority was to create “un havre” — a harbor — that would serve as both a military site to protect France from invaders and a commercial port to open Paris to the world. The city was an afterthought.

Trade exploded over time. Wealthy merchants built grand homes in the coastal town of Sainte-Adresse, northwest of Le Havre.

In August 1944, the British Air Force rained bombs on the city and its inhabitants; 2,000 civilians were killed, 80,000 were left homeless and more than 80 percent of the city was destroyed.

In the 1950s, the French architect Auguste Perret, working with a tight budget and on a deadline, oversaw Le Havre’s reconstruction. A master of precast concrete, he used the cheap, plentiful material to build 150 residential blocks with identical modular frames, a rectangular grid system of streets, and wide sidewalks and boulevards. All the apartments had central heat and modern appliances.

The buildings once were considered ugly. At first glance, they all look alike; then you discover that the concrete came in different shades — creamy beige, gray, taupe, khaki, terra-cotta, ocher — and that the geometric columns and beams were finished with varying patterns and textures (from mottled stone to a smooth velvety feel).

“My concrete is more beautiful than stone,” Perret said. “I work it, I chisel it.”

Perret’s geometric architecture has aged well, and midcentury design is now chic. In 2005, Le Havre was the first example of French Modern architecture to achieve UNESCO World Heritage classification, cited as a model of urban experimentation and reconstruction. (Visitors can take a guided tour of a model apartment in a Perret building.)

Perret’s St. Joseph’s Church, completed in 1957, three years after his death, soars to 350 feet and resembles a small-scale New York City skyscraper. Concrete columns rise to angled buttresses and an octagonal cupola. The steeple is lined with more than 12,000 panes of stained glass.

Inside the church, Philippe Mariette, a retired architect who knew Perret, told me to look up at the reflections from the colored panels that dance on the unadorned walls. “No matter how many times I lift my head, I am always astonished,” he said.

Le Havre has undergone an architectural transformation in recent years. In the center of town is Le Volcan, a partly underground complex designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. It consists of a volcano-shaped theater and a smaller crater converted into a library — with quirky seating pods that are great for kids. On the waterfront is Les Bains des Docks, a swimming complex and spa with pools, hammams, Jacuzzis and solariums designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel; inspired by ancient Roman baths, it is covered in 32 million tiny mosaic tiles. Nearby is the Docks Vauban, a mall with a cinema, restaurants and high-end boutiques.

There is one place in Le Havre that captures the city in time. The Maison de l’Armateur, the mansion of a family of shipowners-merchants and now a museum, is one of the city’s only surviving buildings from the 18th century, with a facade sculpted in Louis XVI style.

Wedged between tall buildings on the quay facing the port, where fishing boats and ferries are moored, it is designed like a tower around an octagonal light shaft and skylight, with rooms on five levels, including the ground floor, where a warehouse and stables were located. The house contains living quarters, a study, portraits, cabinets of curiosities, a library, a map room and a kitchen — all evoking the daily life of the bourgeoisie.

In the summer of 1867, while visiting his aunt in Sainte-Adresse, Monet painted “Garden at Sainte-Adresse,” which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“People know Sainte-Adresse because of the painting,” said François Rosset, a longtime resident who is president of its heritage association. “It’s a formidable vehicle for our town.”

Years ago, Sainte-Adresse refused to give up its independent status and become part of Le Havre. But a three-mile pedestrian and biking trail along the waterfront connects the town and the center of Le Havre. Part of the town was destroyed during the bombings, but many of the old estates on the outskirts were untouched.

Monet’s aunt’s house, which is privately owned, stays empty for much of the year. The main gate to the garden entrance was open on the day I visited. An employee on the grounds let me in for a peek at the site, with its red brick house with white shutters. .

Hubert Dejan de la Bâtie, the mayor of Sainte-Adresse, has dreams of buying and renovating the house and transforming the area into a tourist attraction.

“Maybe I can’t do as well as Giverny,” he said in an interview, referring to the house where Monet lived for 43 years. “But Monet spent his childhood in Le Havre, and maybe we can do a second center for Monet tourism here. We just have to make the project sexy.”

The train from Paris to Le Havre takes approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes. One-way tickets start from an average of €16 (or about $17) when booked in advance through SNCF Connect.

Hôtel Vent d’Ouest Le Havre is in the city center, across the street from St. Joseph Church, a four-minute walk from the harbor and a seven-minute walk from Le Volcan. Cozy and refined country-style décor. Rooms start at €117.

Hôtel Mercure Le Havre Centre Bassin du Commerce, an ultramodern hotel with décor inspired by the port’s containers, is centrally located only a 15-minute walk from the Maison de l’Armateur and MuMa, and a 10-minute walk from the railway station. Rooms start at €98.

Le Bistrot des Halles offers authentic French cuisine in a charming retro setting, with walls decorated with old metal advertising signs. A favorite of locals (about €20 per person for lunch).

Les Fauves, a cafe and restaurant at MuMa, serves versions of French classics and creative desserts in an upscale room with views of the water (about €20 to €30 per person for lunch).

Elaine Sciolino is a contributing writer and former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, based in France since 2002. Her newest book, “Adventures in the Louvre: How to Fall in Love With the World’s Greatest Museum,” will be published in 2025. In 2010, she was decorated a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the highest honor of the French state.

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