The Bay of Biscay, known to the French as the Gulf of Gascony, must be one of the largest in Europe, as it sweeps down from the headland of Penmarc’h in Brittany, drops past the winemaking area of Bordeaux, and turns to define the north coast of Spain. Its winters are usually stormy, as huge North Atlantic swells and their waves meet its cliffs and beaches. This weekend I take a trip from its north-west extreme to the border between France and Spain in the south, with the aid of a selection of paintings.
It was Henry Moret who specialised in painting the first section of the Bay of Biscay, although he came not from Brittany but Cherbourg on the Channel coast. His Heavy Weather at Saint Grenoble, Point de Penmarc’h from 1905 shows enormous seas breaking at this point to the south-west of Quimper, marking the northern terminus of the bay.
Howard Russell Butler was one of many American artists living in Paris in the late nineteenth century. When he was encouraged to go paint in Brittany, he stayed near Concarneau , where he painted these Kelp Gatherers (1886) harvesting seaweed from the beach in far fairer conditions.
Further east along the bay, to the south of the town of Lorient, is the island of Groix, which has attracted many landscape painters.
Moret found more Waves at Pen-men, Île de Groix, on the far western tip of Groix, with the mountainous sea for which this part of the Bay of Biscay is notorious.
Paul Signac visited Groix several times to witness and sketch the annual blessing of its fishing fleet. In December 1923, he painted this finished oil version of the Blessing of the Tuna Fleet at Groix, which was exhibited the following year at the Salon des Indépendants, where it attracted high praise.
Another painting Signac made from sketches he made on the island is the Lighthouse at Groix, completed a couple of year later in 1925. This shows a tuna boat returning to port in the evening, by which time the rest of the fleet are drying their sails in harbour.
During the summer of 1869, Berthe Morisot and sister holidayed together on the south coast of Brittany, where Berthe painted Edma beside The Harbour at Lorient (1869).
In 1886, when Claude Monet was undertaking solo painting expeditions from his rented home in Giverny, he travelled to the island of Belle-Île, a larger island in the bay, to the south of Quiberon.
The clifftops there give spectacular views into the setting sun, seen in his Rocks at Belle-Île, Port-Domois (1886).
Monet’s most impressive paintings of the storms he endured on the coast were made during this stay. His Tempest, the Coast of Belle-Île (1886) shows the spume from the breaking waves shooting high over the rock stacks around the island’s coast.
Shortly after Monet’s visit, the Australian Impressionist John Peter Russell moved himself and his family from Paris to Belle-Île-en-Mer, where he painted Rough Sea, Morestil in about 1900. Monet admitted to preferring some of Russell’s paintings of this island and its rough seas, to his own. Over the next twenty years or so, Russell turned his house into an artists’ colony, where he created some of the most dramatic paintings of the French coast, and even taught the young Matisse some colour theory.
Tomorrow, after a brief reminder of some tragic French history, we’ll enjoy better weather in the south.