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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

The French region of Normandy served as the backdrop to World War II, bravery and slaughter. But it was also the cradle for some of the most beautiful artworks ever made. In the towns just east of the D-Day beaches, French artists launched the 19th century revolution that became impressionism.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has a series of vignettes from those towns.

SUSAN STAMBERG: In Normandy, the small and charming port town of Honfleur has everything...

(Soundbite of church bells)

STAMBERG: ...an iconic, old bell tower that gets excited about weddings...

(Soundbite of organ music)

STAMBERG: ...an ancient wooden church across the street, where the organist does better than "Here Comes the Bride."

(Soundbite of organ grinder music)

STAMBERG: And along the little cobblestone streets, more contemporary music for the hordes of camera-toting tourists.

Away from the crowds, Honfleur has a museum with samples of impressionism in Normandy. The Boudin Museum was founded by a local boy who made good. Eugene Boudin, a forerunner of impressionism, is not that well-known, either in the U.S. or in France. But his influence is visible in every collection of 19th-century French art.

Boudin did not start out to be a painter. His father ran a ferryboat between Honfleur and Le Havre, the big English Channel port.

Ms. BRIDGET MUELLER (Tour Guide): He worked, when he was a child, on his father's ship.

STAMBERG: Bridget Mueller guides visitors around Normandy.

Ms. MUELLER: And one day, he fell overboard and was just caught by seamen; otherwise, he would have drowned. So his mother said: You're not going on this ship again.

STAMBERG: Instead, young Eugene went to school. A teacher spotted artistic talent, and Eugene Boudin went to sea on the canvases he painted. Bridget says there's also hidden proof of the artist's seamanship.

Ms. MUELLER: Every picture painted by Eugene Boudin has on the rear, on the back, the indication of the weather - the wind force and the weather.

STAMBERG: That assertion could not be confirmed by this reporter; the Boudin Museum has extremely serious-looking guards - and some seriously fine Boudins: small, portable canvases painted outdoors on nearby beaches of Deauville and Trouville, in the 1850s and '60s.

Museum guide Rosalee Aussenac says those beaches were just becoming all the rage.

Ms. ROSALEE AUSSENAC (Museum Guide): Up to the 19th century, the beach was the place where fishermen used to go to work - not a place to have a nice walk or to have a nice conversation.

STAMBERG: But Boudin's pictures are full of fancily dressed men and women -long skirts, flowery hats, bowlers, suits, vests - sitting and strolling on the sand, holding parasols against the sun.

Here's what brought them beachside. In the middle of 1800s, fainting - yes, fainting - became nearly epidemic among England's noble and wealthy women. Their tight corsets could not have helped. Doctors prescribed sea-bathing sessions.

Now, going into the sea was not for the faint-hearted then. Ladies changed into bathing costumes inside little cabins. Then, horses pulled the cabin across the sand, and the lady emerged.

Ms. AUSSENAC: And outside, waiting for her, was a big and strong, handsome man. And he would take her into his arms and walk into the sea, and put her in the water once, twice, three times in the big waves - like that, you know. And afterwards, he would bring her back to the cabin. And this was the sea-bathing session. Wasn't that nice?

STAMBERG: Well, if you go in for that kind of thing.

(Soundbite of organ grinder music)

STAMBERG: Eugene Boudin had a grand time painting all this beach activity. So did others. If the British - then French - rich were going to the beach, artists went, too, to paint their portraits, do seascapes, and make some money under the sunny-cloudy Norman skies.

Boudin urged his friend Claude Monet to come to Honfleur. Fifteen years younger than Boudin, Monet was making a reputation in Paris, drawing caricatures in charcoal. Boudin thought Monet could do more.

Ms. AUSSENAC: Come on. Okay, Claude, your caricatures are fun, but it's not real art. I mean, art. I mean painting, Claude, painting.

STAMBERG: Boudin kept nagging his young friend. Monet grew up in Le Havre in Normandy, but was working in Paris. Boudin wanted him to get back to Normandy.

Ms. AUSSENAC: Come over. I want to show you Honfleur. I want you to see the light in Honfleur. I want you to come with me.

STAMBERG: There was the amazing light: the rich, blue skies dotted with scudding, big-bellied clouds that shifted the sunlight, making fields and rocks broody, then brilliant, in a flash.

Monet arrived. He and Boudin painted side-by-side, outside, using portable easels and paint in tubes.

Ms. AUSSENAC: And suddenly, suddenly, Claude Monet just understood what his friend had been telling him about. He understood. It was just - he said afterwards that it was just like a curtain that would open in front of his eyes. He understood what his life was about, and what painting was about.

(Soundbite of church bells)

STAMBERG: Monet, inspired by Boudin, went on to create the very first impressionist painting, and to make studies of light as it fell on haystacks, a cathedral and eventually, tangles of water lilies floating in a pond.

Tomorrow, more Normandy towns where these masterworks were created.

(Soundbite of church bells)

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

KELLY: We've got some of those paintings from Boudin and Monet at our Web site, along with the Normandy scenes that inspired them, and a couple of those caricatures Monet was drawing in Paris. It's all at npr.org.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And finally, a collection of lost impressionist and modern art, from Degas to Picasso, sold at auction in Paris this week. The works were placed in a Paris bank vault in 1939, at the start of World War II.

The man who sealed them there was killed by the Nazis, and the art was left forgotten - until bank clerks opened the vault decades later.

The collection sold for just over $4 million.

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

KELLY: And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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