In the first of these two articles looking at paintings of the Bay of Biscay, we weathered storms along its rugged north coast and islands.
Today we start with the tragic history of the Vendée, the region between Nantes and La Rochelle. During the Hundred Years’ War in 1337-1453, it saw prolonged and bloody fighting, and fared even worse during the French Revolution. The area revolted against the Revolutionary government in 1793, following which there were massacres and a guerrilla war. It’s estimated that as many as a quarter of a million French people were killed by their own countrymen by the time the revolt was suppressed in 1796.
This was made even bloodier by the revolt of the Chouans in Brittany. One of the last paintings by Pierre Outin shows an Episode in the Defeat at Quiberon (1899). This was a British-supported invasion of Quiberon Bay in July 1795, with Royalists trying to keep Republican forces at bay while civilians are taken out to vessels of the Royal Navy to be rescued.
In 1925, Paul Signac travelled south from Brittany to the Gulf of Morbihan, to the east of Quiberon, where he painted this view of L’île-aux-Moines (1925), one of two islands there.
In the summer of 1892 Renoir stayed in Brittany, from where he visited the small island of Noirmoutier, then joined to the mainland by a tidal causeway. In his painting of Bois de la Chaise (Noirmoutier) from that visit, the mimosa trees appear to melt into the warmth of the sky.
During Paul Signac’s travels to paint the ports of France, he reached Les Sables d’Olonne in about 1929. This is a small port in the middle of the Vendée coast, with a beautiful sandy bay that has long been a favourite with visitors.
Further south is the well-known port of La Rochelle, which has been painted extensively.
Renoir’s The Port of La Rochelle from 1896 is a fine plein air oil sketch of this historic port.
Paul Signac painted The Port of La Rochelle (1915) in this, one of the few Pointillist paintings he completed during the First World War.
Heading south from the mouth of the River Gironde the coast of the bay runs almost straight, all the way to the resort of Biarritz, where it turns to the west. The only break is for the large enclosed Basin of Arcachon, to the south-west of the city of Bordeaux.
Pierre Bonnard’s The Beach (Arcachon) from about 1922, shows this beach packed, with tents and awnings covering the golden sand, crowds of people and moored yachts in the distance. Beyond them is a vague line of breakers, where the deep bed of the Atlantic Ocean rises to form coastal shallows.
In 1872, Martín Rico visited the twin ports of Hondarribia in the Basque Country, and its French sister Hendaye, where he painted this marvellous view of the Mouth of the Bidasoa from the west bank.
At some stage in 1895, Renoir visited the same estuary, where he painted this superb plein air oil sketch of Fishing Port, View of Fontarabie from Hendaye (1895), Fontarabie referring to Hondarribia. Being French rather than Spanish, Renoir reverses Rico’s view, painted from the east bank.
Although the Bay of Biscay sweeps on along the northern coast of Spain, it’s there more widely known as the Cantabrian Sea, and has seldom been painted.