rue de l’épicerie (rouen)


The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationality and inquiry, and its belief in human ‘perfectibility’, disturbed the religious and cultural underpinning of the European socio-political order. Voltaire and Diderot in France, like David Hume and Jeremy Bentham in Britain, explored the human and secural bases of governmental power. These thinkers prepared the ground for the emergence of democracy as a viable system of government. Others rejected universal suffrage as a first step towards fragmentation. Awareness of disintegration in the workplace was raised when Adam Smith introduced the term and concept of division of labour in The Wealth of Nations (1776).

Adam Ferguson warned of the dangers implicit in the system. While Smith feared the effect of specialization on the individual, Ferguson argued that excessive division of labour would strain the social ties that bind society together. Progress would deteriorate into a process of atomization. Specialization also affected science and the arts. Already in his day, Goethe complained that the sciences were pigeon-holed. Universities created a multitude of disciplines without offering an integrated world-view. Too many specialisms caused the part to obscure the whole, and information to replace wisdom. Once divorced from architecture, the arts that were traditionally tied to building (sculpture, painting, and even music) developed into independent branches of creative endeavour. This particularization divorced them from their social purpose. The demand of originality dealt a final blow to stylistic unity or continuity within the creative domain that splintered into a plenitude of aggresively combative groups or -isms succeeding each other at an ever accelerating rate. Time and again critics applied phrases such as ‘cultural anarchy’ or ‘decadence’ to describe the perceived state of fragmentation into which the creative domain had fallen. Subjectivity was seen as the hallmark of disintegration.


These observations were made at the same time that an unstoppable process of centralization took place in Europe. All roads and railways led from the provinces to the capital. Napoleon was a key figure in pushing the development towards a single authority of law- and policymaking forward. The French Revolution had swept away most remaining medieval and feudal laws. A truly national law code was established. Paris is the cause of the destruction of all the old bounds of provinces and jurisdictions, ecclesiastical and secular, Edmund Burke observed in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). The ‘strength of Paris thus formed, will appear a system of general weakness’. Critics such as Mme de Staël or Alphonse de Lamartine claimed that centralization would be disastrous from a cultural perpective. They hailed the vibrancy of Italian or German cities competing to emulate and outdo each other in artistic achievements, or, as Hippolyte Taine put it in 1866, in Renaissance Italy, ‘[une] cité était une élite, et non, comme chez nous, une multitude’. It was widely feared that individual regions would forfeit their cultural traditions and the consequent loss of regional identities would undermine the nation’s strength as a whole.

04That is why George Eliot insisted in Middlemarch (1871/2) that an intelligent provincial man with a grain of public spirit, should do what he can ‘to resist the rush of everything that is a little better than common towards London. Any valid professional aims may often find a freer, if not a richer field, in the provinces’. Cities may be centres of innovation and knowledge transfer, but over-centralization or the coming together of all cultural facilities in one place, carries the dangers of homogenizing art (and language) and killing off diversity. Many of our standard handbooks of literature and art seem to suggest that outside the metropolis cultural life is stagnant or non-existent. The attitude is summarized by the figure of Sir Ernold in François de Neufchâteau’s comedy Pamela, ou La vertue recompense (1795): ‘Hors de Paris, vraiment, le goût n’existe pas’. That, of course, is an outrageous statement.


Like it was the case for a number of other European cities, Rouen’s modern history has been a painful one. During the nineteenth century its main industry was textile and cotton. Manufacturies were established in the Cailly and Robec valleys as well as on the left bank of the Seine. Endless rows of brick houses were built to lodge the influx of migrant workers. The poor living conditions of the working classes caused social unrest. In April 1848 the city was full of barricades although the insurrection was quickly and brutally put down. During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, Rouen was occupied by the Prussians. During the First World War the city was a support base for the front line and saw the arrival of many refugees from Northern France and Belgium, before the landing and stationing of British troops. World War ii brought serious suffering to the city. The Germans entered Rouen on the 9 June 1940. The area of the city most affected by combat was located between the cathedral and the river which burned for a week as the Germans refused to allow the fire service access. Rouen was to remain under Nazi control for four long years during which time the city was bombed regularly and recklessly. The worst Allied attack took place during the week from 30 May to 5 June 1944 when 400 bombs hit Rouen killing 1,500 people, damaging the Cathedral, Saint-Maclou and the Palais de Justice and completely destroying a large part of the left bank.

06When the Canadians liberated Rouen on the 30 August 1944 they entered a devastated city. Cityscapes and photographs now serve as a memory of old Rouen. One of the streets obliterated by bombing during the war was Rue de l’Épicerie, literally: street of grocery stores, a bustling market street near to the cathedral. French artist Marcel Augis (pseudonym of Henri Dupont) was one a number of First World War French and Belgian artists that trod the Western Front during the Great War. They recorded the devastation of the battlefields and the areas that contained Allied troops. Many of these etchings/aquatints would have been sold to soldiers returning home after the War or subsequently purchased on battlefield remembrance tours that took place in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1916/7 Augis produced five or six scenes of Rouen. The etching of ‘La Rue de l’Épicerie, Rouen’ dates from 1917 shows a street full of grocery speciality shops of spices from the Far East with the cathedral is in the background.


The city is associated with three major artistic movements, namely Realism in literature and Romanticism and Impressionism in painting. From a literary point of view, Rouen is first and foremost associated with novelist Gustave Flaubert. The author was born in the city on 12 December 1821 and educated at the Lycée Pierre Corneille (the dramatist was also born in Rouen). In 1840 he went to Paris to study law, but hated the legal profession and found the city distasteful. From 1846 to 1854, Flaubert had a relationship with the poet Louise Colet. After leaving Paris, he returned to Croisset, near the Seine and close to Rouen, and lived with his mother in their home for the rest of his life. He never married. The affair with Louise was his only serious relationship.

08His 1856 novel Madame Bovary is set in the sleepy town of Tostes (now Tôtes), near Rouen, and focuses on a doctor’s wife, Emma Bovary, who has adulterous affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape the emptiness of provincial life. Trapped in a banal marriage to Charles Bovary, a man without drive or ambition, and living in provincial surroundings, infidelity and Rouen are her only means of escape. To her, Paris represents the culmination of all dreams. Her reality however is life in a dull town, an existence of bitterness and discontent. The town of Tôtes also figures in another classic of French literature, Guy de Maupassant’s Boule de Suif. Set during the Franco-Prussian War, the story tells the cowardly betrayal of prostitute Elisabeth Rousset by a group of upright citizens from Rouen in order to save their own skins. De Maupassant himself was educated at a boarding school in the city. 09 Nestling in a meander of the river, the capital of Normandy has always held a fascination for artists. A number of English painters found inspiration in the old town. Richard Parkes Bonington, an Anglo-French painter of coastal scenes with a fine handling of light and atmosphere, painted the famous Rue du Gros-Horloge. Critics consider this work a masterpiece of Romantic lithography.

Turner created a well-known watercolour of Rouen Cathedral and, like Pissarro would do many years later, he compared the city to Venice. Paul Huet painted his splendid ‘Vue générale de Rouen, prise du Mont-aux-Malades’ in 1831. During three trips to Normandy in 1829, 1830 and 1833, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot produced various views of and landscapes around the Seine as seen from Rouen. Théodore Géricault was born and educated in Rouen before settling in Paris. From a historical perspective, a dramatic moment in the turn from Neoclassicism to Romanticism was the exhibition of one of Géricault’s paintings at the Salon of 1819 in Paris. In June 1816, the French frigate ‘Méduse’ had departed from Rochefort bound for Senegal. The ship drifted off course and ran aground on a sandbank off the West African coast. Passengers and crew tried to travel the sixty miles to the African coast in the frigate’s six boats. Although she was carrying 400 people, there was space for just about 250 of them in the boats. The others were piled onto a hastily-built raft. For sustenance the crew had no more than a bag of ship’s biscuits and two casks of water. The journey carried the survivors to the edge of human experience. Crazed and starved, they slaughtered mutineers, ate their dead companions, and killed the weakest amongst them. After thirteen days at sea, the raft was rescued. Fifteen men were still alive. The others had been thrown overboard, died of starvation, or drowned themselves in despair.


The disaster inspired Théodore Géricault to create ‘Le radeau de la Méduse’. The painting depicts the moment that survivors view a ship approaching from a distance. The artist was obsessed by the subject-matter. He undertook extensive research, interviewed survivors, and constructed a scale model of the raft. His efforts took him to morgues and hospitals where he could view the dying and dead. He was said to be spellbound with the stiffness of corpses. He brought severed limbs back to his studio to investigate their decay, and stored a severed head borrowed from a lunatic asylum on his studio roof. Despite their drudging reputation, fixed routines are an indispensable tool to artists of all kinds. The creative process demands discipline. Géricault drove this awareness to the extreme. During the eight months of creation, the painter lived a monastic existence, working in methodical fashion and complete silence. The painting established the artist’s international reputation and the disturbing image became an icon of French Romanticism.


Johan Barthold Jongkind visited Paris in 1860 where his Dutch watercolours of land- and seascapes enjoyed enormous successs. He decided to stay and paintings such as a ‘Vue de Rouen’ or ‘La Seine près de Rouen’ (both paintings date from 1865) which record the mood and atmospherics of the moment became influential in the push towards new aesthetic ideals. The Impressionists were regular visitors to Rouen. In fact, it was in Normandy that Claude Monet in 1872 painted his famous ‘Impression, soleil levant’, a painting that gave the movement its name. It would, however, be another twenty years before the artist turned his attention to Rouen’s Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame. Painted from the first floor of a ladies’ lingerie shop, he worked on up to fourteen canvases at a time, determined to capture each and every atmospheric detail. The final result consists of twenty-eight views of the impressive facade which includes ‘La Rue de l’Épicerie à Rouen’ (1892).

13Monet finished the works in his studio at Giverny, carefully adjusting the pictures both independently and in relation to each other. In 1895, he successfully exhibited twenty of his cathedral pictures at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris. In the autumn of 1883, Paul Gauguin moved his family from Paris to Rouen. In desperate financial trouble, he combined painting with selling life insurances and other part-time jobs in order to survive before moving to Copenhagen where his Danish wife Mette tried to keep the family afloat by teaching French to Danish students. During his short spell in Rouen, Gauguin painted a number of street- and city-scenes which includes ‘Rue Jouvenet à Rouen’ (Rouen-born Jean Jouvenet was appointed to the post of Director of the Royal Acadamy in 1705).

14Léon-Jules Lemaître produced some stunning paintings of the area. In his oil painting ‘Palais de Justice de Rouen’ Lemaître masterly captures the atmosphere of the Law Courts’ Renaissance courtyard. His 1890 painting of the Rouen’s Gros Horloge, one of Europe’s oldest working medieval clocks, is an outstanding example of his interest in the cityscape. Lemaître is one of a handful of a group of artists that became known as the ‘École de Rouen’. The term was coined in 1902 by the French critic Arsène Alexandre and refers to a group of post-Impressionist artists who followed in the footsteps of Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley. The members of the School of Rouen were drawn to the city as an escape from the strict academic attitudes found in the salons and galleries of Paris at the time. Their efforts culminated in two legendary exhibitions: the first, held in 1907, brought together works by Fauvist artists such as Dufy, Matisse and Braque; the second, organised on the Ile Lacroix in 1912, was addressed by Apollinaire who gave a lecture on ‘Orphic Cubism’.


Pissarro was famous for his portrayal of Rouen, a city he once described ‘as beautiful as Venice’. He first worked there in 1883. An admirer of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series, he painted several views of the quays along the Seine. He tended to work at the spot to capture the atmosphere and activity there and then. In 1893, following treatment on an eye, his doctor warned him not to expose himself to dusty conditions. He returned to Rouen in 1896 and in 1898 for three extended painting campaigns. By working from an elevated position, Pissarro found a perfect solution to the problem of capturing the hustle and bustle of the city, its linear and aerial perspectives, without the impracticalities of installing himself in the street. From the third floor of his room at the Hôtel de Paris which overlooked the Seine, he painted different views of the Pont Boïeldieu, at sunset, on an overcast day, in the fog. The bridge joined the old Gothic city in the north with the new southern industrial areas of Sainte-Sever. On the far bank we see boats docking and unloading cargo, with the urban landscape in the distance. It is this juxtaposition of mist and smoke, of the industrial and the historical, that gives his cityscapes its intriguing character. An exhibition of his work at Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris in April/May 1896 included eleven Rouen paintings which were critically appreciated and found buyers giving him financial security at last. It allowed him to return to Rouen in September 1896. This time he stayed at the Hôtel d’Angleterre on the other side of the bridge, where his fifth-floor room offered panoramas of the city’s three bridges. In 1898 he travelled to Rouen for a fourth time, painting more views of the bridges, as well as of the Gare d’Orléans and the Quai de la Bourse.

16On 19 August 1898, Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien that he had found an excellent place from which to paint the Rue de l’Épicerie and the Friday market in the Place de la Haute-Vieille-Tour. He made various paintings of the street under different atmospheric conditions, be it in bright sunshine or on a grey morning. Like fellow Impressionists he liked to experiment with the effects of light. Depicting light and the play of shadow has always been a challenge to painters. The Impressionists abolished the traditional use of neutral tones and black and grays for creating shadow by applying purples and yellows instead to suggest coloured shadows and reflected light. Pissarro’s paintings of the old street are a reminder of the cruel damage World War ii had inflicted on Europe’s heritage. His views of Rouen total a number of forty-seven. They vastly exceed the numbers of any other series he created. Cityscapes dominate his oeuvre. Rouen’s rich artistic history in the meantime shows that there is life outside the capital after all.