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SVA Destinations Takes a Walking Tour of Paris Impressionists

The College’s annual series of arts abroad programs contextualizes Impressionism

Realism is painting what’s in front of you. Abstraction is painting beyond what you can see. Straddling both worlds is Impressionism, a radical 19th-century art movement that shattered all the previous rules of art making.

So when SVA Destinations, the College’s annual series of arts abroad programs, sought to expand its offerings this year, creating a program to contextualize Impressionism was a priority.

SVA Destinations Paris was launched last week, during the College’s spring break from March 3 to 11, with its inaugural group of participants. The rigorous weeklong agenda, led by Laurence Minard-Amalou and Aziza Gaines, was centered on an intensive, firsthand study of Impressionist masterpieces in the city of the influential movement’s gestation. We tagged along for the journey; check out some highlights from the experience in our diary below.

Day 1, Saturday, March 3
After seven hours of trans-Atlantic traveling, SVA Destination Paris participants were treated to a welcome dinner cruise along the Seine River, which offered memorable views of many of the City of Light’s dazzling monuments—including the Eiffel Tower, whose sparkling illumination lit up the night sky. Amidst the three-course meal, spontaneous singing from a group of French senior passengers filled the air and seemed to punctuate our welcome.

Day 2, Sunday, March 4
After seeing the Eiffel Tower from a distance the night before, this morning’s tour brought us up close and onto the tower’s second level, where we were treated to a bird’s eye view of Paris. From there we were able to map out and see spectacular views of the Louvre, Notre Dame, Montmartre and the Grand Palais, places that we would go on to visit throughout the weeklong walking tour adventure. In the afternoon, we visited the Petit Palais, a museum that hosts an impressive number of Impressionist masterpieces, including one of the paintings in artist Claude Monet’s series of sunrise and sunset studies, which is largely credited with sparking the movement.

Day 3, Monday, March 5
Monday was largely dedicated to crossing and covering central Paris by foot, with visits to Saint Lazare, L’Opera and the Louvre, and stops along the way at sites where the masters of Impressionism painted some of their best-known work. We learned how Pissarro’s bridge paintings, painted along the banks of the Seine, are not only artistic achievements but also serve as historical references that reflect the time, architecture and Parisian environment of his day. “It’s affecting being where Pissarro was,” said BFA Illustration student and SVA Destinations Paris participant George Cardozo. “Thinking about the foliage in the painting and seeing that it is still there today brings another connection to the time, to the art, through a living thing.” In the afternoon we visited the L’Orangerie, a museum on the grounds of the former royal orangery at the Tuileries Gardens that was remodeled to house Monet's vast “Nympheas,” or “Water Lilies,” series, painted after World War I as a kind of hopeful wish for peace. These impressive panels were installed in the round, creating a meditative, light-filled treasure of an experience.

Day 4, Tuesday, March 6
We took a train to a winding road to a funicular to get to Montmartre, a neighborhood perched above the city that offers panoramic views and has strong artistic roots. Originally this hilltop village was settled by artists because of its low rents. We visited Vincent Van Gogh’s first apartment in Paris there and saw the famous vantage point and windmill included in his paintings from that time. Montmartre still has a vibrant artistic community, and in being there one could see how the Impressionist artists were able to meet in the cafes, form a comradery and influence each other’s style. We visited the Montmartre Museum to learn more about this special neighborhood and the Bateau-Lavoir, which was a home and gathering place for many famous artists, to enjoy the atmosphere for the day.

Day 5, Wednesday, March 7
The SVA Destinations Paris group hopped on a bus for a road trip to experience the “Island of the Impressionists,” otherwise known as Chatou. Located near Paris along the banks of the Seine, Chatou was a festive and relaxing weekend destination for Parisians who reveled in boating activities. Impressionist master August Renoir loved Chatou and memorialized it in his painting The Déjeuner des Canotiers, which features the local restaurant La Maison Fournaise. On our trip we followed the artists’ trails, visited the restaurant and the Musée Fournaise to discover the island’s rich history. For lunch we ventured to Marly-Le-Roi, the setting of many celebrated paintings by artist Camille Pissarro. Last, we visited Louveciennes, the chateau built by Louis XIV near the aqueduct that drew water from the Seine through a 14-panel hydraulic process, which was also the site of many Impressionist paintings.

Day 6, Thursday, March 8
We celebrated International Women’s Day with a trip to Musée Marmottan Monet, a small museum tucked away in a Parisian mansion on the city's posh western edge. The museum featured an exhibition by Bethe Morisot, the first female impressionist painter. We learned about Bethe’s career, which started by a chance meeting with artist Édouard Manet at the Louvre. She went on to pose for him 14 times, marry his brother and become a championed member of his painters’ circle, which was revolutionary at the time, as women were not allowed to paint professionally. Also on view at the museum was its permanent collection of Monet’s “water lilies” and “sunrise” works, whose rich textures and bursts of colors jump off the canvas when you see them up close and in person. In the evening, we visited the Musée D’Orsay, home to the mother lode of Impressionist paintings. Its vast permanent collection features famous and important works from Monet, Manet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Eugène Delacroix, Paul Gauguin, and Gustave Caillebotte. It also houses many (post-Impressionist) works by Van Gogh. This visit helped us to contextualize and trace the evolution of Impressionism, and its various depictions of form and light, from its early stages.

Day 7, Friday, March 9
For our last programmed day, we took a road trip to Auvers-sur-Oise, the town where Van Gogh lived out the end of his short yet consequential life. Inspired by the area’s forests and wheat fields, Van Gogh, considered a post-Impressionist artist, painted every corner of this village, which remains largely unchanged since the 19th century. We visited the museum Château d'Auvers for a visual journey through the Impressionist movement, Room Number 5 in the Auberge Ravoux, where Van Gogh famously died, and visited the historic home of Dr. Paul Gachet, who famously treated artists Pissarro, Paul Cézanne and Van Gogh.

Day 8, Saturday, March 10
With the morning off on our last official day in Paris, we were off to discover and immerse ourselves in the sites, smells, styles and cultures of the city on our own. We eventually convened in a delightful French restaurant on the Left Bank to recap our trip, which—after 60 walked miles, eight museum visits, two daytrips and much inspiration—left us with a solid, thorough foundation of Impressionism.

For more from our Paris trip, check out SVA's Instagram account. Click here to read about and apply to our SVA Destinations programs taking place this May in Cannes, France, Rome, Italy, and Oaxaca, Mexico and to learn more about our summer programs in Southern France, Japan, Mexico City, Barcelona and many more hot spots, details are here.

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