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Where Art Comes Alive: Six Legendary Paintings’ Locations

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Some artists work best in a studio, creating still lifes or seated portraits, while some prefer to sketch from their imaginations, crafting composite images of people and settings. And others, lured by fresh air, boundless space, and the changing seasons, can’t imagine being confined within four walls, so they take their palettes and brushes outdoors to pay homage to all Mother Nature has to offer. The following six painters couldn’t resist the call of the wild in their time, and centuries later, visitors to the same locations that stirred these artistic souls are finding out why.


Jacob van Ruisdael: The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede (1670)

The windmill in this brooding work by noted Dutch landscape painter van Ruisdael no longer exists, though its foundation remains standing in Wijk bij Duurstede, a city of some twenty-four thousand people on the banks of the Rhine river in the Netherlands. Just a couple of blocks away, however, is another, newer windmill that boasts the distinction of being the only drive-through structure of its kind in the world. The city is also known for its unusual flat-topped church, called the Grote Kerk, and its circa-1270 castle, the Kasteel Duurstede.


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons


Claude Monet: Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge (1899)

In April 1883, looking out the window of a train seventy-five kilometers west of Paris, Claude Monet spotted the village of Giverny. The French impressionist was so taken with the area that he relocated his family there that year, renting a house and working tirelessly to transform the surrounding garden into a paradise that would inspire some of his most famous paintings. Ten years later, he bought a neighboring piece of land across the road from the house and developed an Asian-inspired water garden, which features the Japanese bridge and pond that figure prominently in many of Monet’s Giverny paintings. But when Monet died in 1926, the building and grounds fell into disrepair, until 1977, when a newly appointed curator spearheaded what would become a decade-long effort to restore Giverny to its former splendor. Today, Monet’s home is open to the public seven months each year, attracting some five hundred thousand visitors to experience the same natural bounty that moved him to create some of the preeminent examples of impressionist art in history.


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons




Edouard Manet: Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1863)

Allegedly, the impulse to create this work seized Manet as he observed bathers in Argenteuil, France. Reminded of Italian Renaissance painter Giorgione’s Fête Champêtre, which Manet had duplicated earlier in his career, the artist announced his intention to reenvision the scene on his own terms. The end result was considered controversial for its time, both because of its scale (seven by eight and a half feet), which was unusually large for a rendering of everyday events, and because of its untraditional depiction of a female nude. Nearly a century and a half later, Argenteuil, the site that started it all, is the second-most-populous commune in the suburbs of Paris; visitors to the area seek out artists’ workshops and galleries, as well as all manner of outdoor activities, including cycling, hiking, white-water rafting, and snowmobiling.


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons


Georges Seurat: Un Dimanche Après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte (1884)

Seurat created this meticulous example of pointillism, one of his best known, over two years’ worth of visits to the Île de la Grande Jatte, a pastoral island in the Seine where many Parisians sought temporary refuge from the hubbub of city life in the late nineteenth century. Today, the grassy slope where Seurat set up his easel to paint the passersby is a small public park called the Square Alfred Sisley, and the Île de la Grande Jatte, which became an industrial site after the artist’s time, has been resurrected as a peaceful oasis for four thousand residents.


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons


Vincent van Gogh: Starry Night (1889)

The swirling skies and luminescent beauty of van Gogh’s Starry Night have captivated viewers since the artist painted the landscape, but the natural majesty the work conveys belies the sinister circumstances behind it: van Gogh completed the painting in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy, Provence, where he was admitted not long after he attacked his roommate and fellow artist Paul Gauguin and cut off his own earlobe. Throughout his stay in Saint-Rémy, van Gogh was haunted by visions of death, which he believed the outdoors engendered in him and which he made manifest in many of the paintings, illustrations, and sketches he produced during that period. Despite its formerly morbid connotations, however, Saint-Rémy today is a bustling, picturesque village where travelers find their inner joie de vivre exploring Provençal markets, cuisine, and ancient architecture.


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons




Edward Hopper: Blackhead, Monhegan (1916–19)

Twelve nautical miles off the coast of Maine lies Monhegan, an island accessible only by mailboat ferry. Though it started out as a British camp and went on to become a fishing and agricultural hub, Monhegan is best known for its long-standing art colony, which began in earnest around 1890 and continues to this day. Over the years, painters and illustrators working in a wide range of genres flocked to the island to soak up its natural splendor and seek inspiration from their contemporaries. During the summer of 1916, famed American realist painter Edward Hopper took up residence at Monhegan and created this tableau of the island’s 150-foot Blackhead cliffs.


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons


Visiting a museum is par for the course in any travel experience, but it can’t compare with stepping into a painting by visiting an artistic site in person. Would you rather look at a two-dimensional picture of Monet’s Japanese bridge hanging on a wall, or actually feel that structure under your feet as you gaze out across the lily pond at Giverny? Would you prefer to imagine the ocean vistas that the cliffs at Monhegan give onto, or stand atop those bluffs and feel the sun on your face? There’s a reason why sight is only one of our five senses: we’re meant to use all the other ones, too. 

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