Dilettante: ‘Normandy Coast’ at the Portland Museum of Art

Posted Wednesday, July 11, 2012 in Culture

Dilettante: ‘Normandy Coast’ at the Portland Museum of Art

"On the Cliff at Pourville, Clear Weather," by Claude Monet, 1882

by Jan Brennan

Ambling through the first-floor galleries at the Portland Museum of Art last week, my companion noted: “How did the Normandy coast get to be such a tourist spot? It looks like the weather is always awful!”

Indeed, quite a few of the 43 paintings in the PMA’s summer show “The Draw of the Normandy Coast” depict foamy, roiling waves surging under dark and threatening skies.  Perhaps the scariest image, “Stormy Weather at Etretat” by Gustave Courbet, gave me a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach, as the waves crashing onto the shore look so powerful and dangerous. In fact, while swimming at that very beach, Courbet once rescued another painter’s son from drowning, for Etretat has a strong undercurrent and waves that crash even on calm days.

"Stormy Weather at Etretat," by Gustave Courbet, circa 1869

The often wild, always changeable weather of the Normandy coast, which is buffeted by winds off the English Channel, was a draw for artists in the mid-1800s; it gave them “an appealing, challenging spectrum of light effects to capture on canvas," the show’s curator, Margaret Burgess, writes in the catalog. The area’s limestone cliffs and their sea-eroded arches made pretty subjects for paintings — especially when the artists edited out the messy old fishing boats and inconvenient washerwomen who came at low tide to do laundry in the shoreside springs.