Giverny Links French and American Art

In the shadows of Monet, a museum traces painters' shared inspiration

THE American invasion has been a recurring theme of French cultural discussion at least since Uncle Sam's gum-chewing farmboys unforgivably rescued a proud France from Nazi domination nearly 50 years ago.

Most recently, the topic flared last spring with the opening of Euro-Disneyland east of Paris. Earlier, it was the relentless waves of American movies that have dominated the French box office for several years; or the installation of American fast-food restaurants across the country; or the steady adoption by French youth of the standard-issue American uniform: T-shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers. Before that, and before they were replaced by the Japanese, the invaders were busloads of American tourists.

Another American invasion of France - perhaps the first, in fact - began just over a century ago, when dozens of American artists settled in the gentle Norman village of Giverny. They came for the striking light of the Seine River valley, for the motifs of the French countryside, and for the calm that contrasted with the myriad distractions of Paris. But mostly they were drawn to the founder of French Impressionism, Claude Monet, whose pink-and-green country house here became for them a kind of mecca.

For roughly 30 years, between 1885 and 1915, American artists from the well-known to the obscure made the short train trip from Paris to Giverny - first to seek an audience with the master of the revolutionary and, for some, shocking school of painting, then to paint in and around the village. Some of them set up studios and stayed.

"The Americans came here to draw on what they experienced and to take it in," says Jean-Marie Toulgouat, a Giverny painter and grandson of Monet's stepdaughter and the American painter Theodore Butler. What most characterized the American invasion was not what it imposed, but what it absorbed.

"They came open to new ideas and styles, and little Giverny, mostly due to Monet's presence, had something new and challenging to offer," says Mr. Toulgouat. "It obviously had quite an influence on them."

Commemoration of this influence of Giverny and of France in general in American art is the reason behind the small but striking Musee Americain, which opened earlier this summer amid the typical farmhouses and diminutive fields of the Giverny countryside.

Built across a country road from Monet's house, the Musee Americain is the inspiration of American art collector and noted arts patron Daniel Terra. Founder of two art museums in Illinois, including Chicago's Terra Museum of American Art, Mr. Terra wanted the Giverny museum to stand as a kind of "thank you" to France for its role in American art.

For Terra, ambassador of cultural affairs under President Reagan and an officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters, the museum also pays tribute to the long and fruitful tradition of Franco-American cultural exchange. As an expression itself of this exchange, the museum brings to Giverny something that, despite the presence of Monet's house, the historic village lacked.

"The museum constitutes a reference," says Toulgouat. "With the Monet house people came mostly to see his gardens, but now the cultural element of the art that was created here is added to that," he says. "The visitor can see the result of these artists' presence, how what they saw became what they painted."

The museum adds a historical dimension to Giverny that until now was limited for the visitor to Monet's haunts.

"It's so rare for a small village like this to contain a museum that preserves and presents a part of its memory, and that is what the Musee Americain does," says Claire Joyes, a consulting conservator to the museum.

That the museum exists at all is partly the doing of Ms. Joyes, whose entry into the Monet family through her marriage to Toulgouat led to her interest in recording Giverny's past.

An ardent advocate of the village's physical and historical preservation, Joyes swung into action when, in 1986, a "for sale" sign appeared on a village house once owned by American artist Lilla Cabot Perry. Worried that the house and its painting studio would fall into the hands of buyers uninterested in its role in the village's artistic past, Joyes contacted Stephen Weil of the Hirshorn Museum in Washington to send out an S.O.S.

A few days later Terra - who owns American artist Theodore's Robinson's "Wedding March," depicting the Giverny wedding of Toulgouat's grandparents - called Joyes to say, as she recalls, "I'm interested in the Perry house, I want to found a museum."

As it turned out, Terra's ambitions required more space than the Perry house offered. Today the Musee Americain is a low building of local Vernon limestone, much of the structure concealed underground to minimize obstruction of the countryside. It includes three exhibit halls, an auditorium, a restaurant, and windows looking out to some of the very fields and hilltops depicted in a few of the displayed paintings.

The museum's inaugural exposition, "Lasting Impressions: American Painters in France 1865-1915," (to Nov. 1) includes work by 44 artists - Mary Cassatt, Theodore Wendel, Frederick Frieseke, Willard Metcalf - most of whom either painted in Giverny or knew Monet.

The exhibition opens with Robinson's "Wedding March" (1892), which captures in its upper-right corner the Giverny town hall that is just a short walk from the museum. In addition to many landscapes, including John Leslie Breck's collection of haystack studies - a striking testimony to Monet's influence - the show includes Samuel B. Morse's "Gallery of the Louvre." The work predates by better than half a century the arrival of American artists in Giverny, but is a valuable addition as an earlier example o f the old-world's impact on new-world artists.

Still undecided, according to Joyes, is what part of the show will stay on as testimony to the American artists' presence in Giverny. But Terra, who makes regular trips to Giverny to check on the museum's progress and plan its future, wants it to become a center for presenting three centuries of American art to France.

And with an eye on helping to keep the legacy of the Franco-American cultural exchange alive, the museum is also looking to create artist residencies and a program in art history.

The idea is not to create a second American invasion of Giverny - which some of the village residents feared would result from the new museum. Toulgouat notes that Giverny, a typically private and introverted village, reserved a particularly dreadful reception for Monet when he arrived in 1883, and that the welcome for the new museum project a century later wasn't always enthusiastic.

What the Musee Americain hopes to do, says Joyes, is to make it possible for a new generation of artists to experience the countryside of Monet and his American contemporaries.

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