When painter Claude Monet spent time on Belle-Île-en-Mer in 1886, he was fascinated by the constantly changing weather and the way the landscape altered with the tides.
“I am staying in a tiny hamlet on Belle-Île and working hard. It’s a very beautiful, very wild place; the sea is incomparably beautiful and some of the rocks are fantastic. What’s more, the place is known as the wild sea.”
115 years later, I would describe Belle-Île in exactly the same way…and I’m here because of a painting.
A few months ago I bought a little c. 1920’s painting at the Paris flea market. I was drawn to it as soon as I saw it…maybe it was the soft colors and the open sky, but more than that, it was the feeling of it. It is signed, “J. Ciry, To My Old Friend,” and on the back is written, “Sauzon a Belle Ile en Mer.” I was intrigued and wanted to see the “beautiful island” for myself.
The landscape changes from rolling hills leading to the sea, to neatly mowed fields, to rocky cliffs, to meadows blanketed with flowers in the blink of an eye. The weather changes just as quickly.
Monet painted these rocks, called “pyramids” in 1886, and they still look the same.
“I am in a wonderfully wild place”, he wrote to his friend, the painter Caillebotte, “amongst a heap of terrible rocks and an unbelievably coloured sea. “
Occasionally there’s a break in the cliffs for a sandy beach.
I was surprised to see both forests of pine trees and towering palm trees. It would only make sense on Belle-Île.
The harbors are the life of the island, constantly in motion…boats bobbing in the water, fisherman bringing in their catch, nets being gathered up, and children playing alongside the water.
Piles of fishing net and rope were heaped along this walkway in Sauzon, where children were fishing with their own small nets for crabs and anything else they could scoop up.
The sea is a predominant theme for Belle-Île. The churches in Sauzon and Locmaria have ship models hanging from the ceiling, and stained glass depicting angels watching over the villages.
There is beauty everywhere, even in the rain, but the most striking feature of Belle-Île are the houses. Oh, the lovely houses, with their lacy-curtained windows framed in all the colors of the rainbow.
Because of my little painting, I couldn’t wait to go to Sauzon. Walking the streets, I felt the same ambience that I saw in the painting. I sat with the locals at this Crêperie on the harbor.
At the table next to me, a family was celebrating the dad’s birthday. Under the daughter’s chair was a hand-decorated gift, signed by all three kids.
Sitting next to them, hearing them sing and laugh, I imagined what it must be like to live in this captivating little village.
As I looked out towards the water, I understood why Monet and Matisse, and the unknown J. Ciry, who painted my little painting, have been inspired by the rocks…
the vast open sea.