If your job was to scout for picture-perfect locations for chocolate boxes, you’d find the Cote des Bar in Champagne a rich source of glorious material. Postcard pretty villages, vineyards and chateaux, this is a part of France that is incredibly beautiful and yet not overcrowded…
Following in the footsteps of Renoir in the village of Essoyes
You wouldn’t be the first discover the attractions of this place. Pierre Auguste Renoir, the great impressionist French painter, lived and painted in the village of Essoyes near the border with Burgundy and has made its countryside famous on canvas across the world. Renoir’s paintings are a snapshot of life as he saw it, vibrant, passionate, colourful and soft; his love of life was truly reflected in his work. His philosophy was “… a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.”
Born in Limoges, in the Limousin region on February 25, 1841, Renoir started his career as an apprentice to a porcelain painter. He studied drawing and painting and moved to Paris, he adored the city. In 1880 he met Aline Charigot a seamstress from Essoyes who became his part time model. The pair fell in love and had three children, Pierre an actor, Jean (who became the well-known film maker) and Claude, a potter. Each summer the family would holiday in Essoyes and Renoir became captivated by the pretty village and the pace of country life.
Eventually Aline persuaded her husband to move to the town and they bought a house which remained in the family after his death in 1919 and was recently sold to the town by Renoir’s grand daughter Emily. It is due to be renovated and opened to the public but remains closed for now.
I was thrilled to be one of the first British journalists to enter through its pretty but faded pastel blue door and although there is not much to see at this stage it was an incredible experience. The tiled kitchen fireplace is reminiscent of the kitchen at Monet’s house in Giverny, a contemporary and life-long friend of Renoir. The original oven looks as though it was used just the day before. A table and chairs set before it mean you can easily imagine Renoir sitting here, sipping a bowl of coffee, re-arranging fruit in a vessel to look more pleasing, planning the day in his light filled studio at the bottom of the garden.
The rooms are almost bare, a few chairs, an old bike, bed frames, a cupboard or two – that is all that is in the house and it certainly needs some TLC. But, standing at the window of Renoir’s bedroom I could not help putting myself in his shoes, envisaging him waking up in the morning and wandering to the window to see what sort of day it was, what light he might have, moaning if it was overcast.
When the house opens to the public in 2017 it will be a remarkable place and a great supplement to the renovated atelier and Renoir centre in this lovely little town where you can follow in his footsteps.
In Renoir’s footsteps
All through and around the town is a trail which takes in the walks that Renoir took and the scenes he painted. The river where he liked to watch and capture the sparkling light and vigour of the washer women; the vineyards and countryside. At each key spot you will find an easel and a copy of the painting so that you can compare the scene the painter made immortal with the view today. It makes for a most surprising and touching tour in the great master’s shadow ending with a visit to the cemetery where Renoir is buried, with a sculpture of his head, eyes pointed to his old, beloved home.
In the atelier you’ll discover a small exhibition, Renoir’s wheelchair, the box he used to transport his paintings from Essoyes to Paris, the paint spattered floor, letters and information about the great man. So passionate was he about painting that at a grand old age, when his hands were gnarled and seized up from arthritis, he had someone tie the paintbrushes to his wrists and move the canvas so that he could carry on daubing.
In the visitor centre you can see a beautiful film about the painter and the local area and discover more of his works and facts about his life and times.
Afterwards, take a break in the very pretty town, enjoy lunch at Aux Berges de L’Ource with its excellent menu, warm welcome and friendly staff, and where a glass of champagne is no more expensive than a glass of beer.
Find lots of information and details of what to see and where to stay in the area at: www.champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk
Renoir’s House – photo gallery, gorgeous and big photos of the interior of Renoir’s House as never seen before.
Going potty for porcelain in Limoges, where Renoir first learned to paint