Honfleur: Discover the Town Which Inspired Impressionist Masters

With its slate-grey townhouses, timber-framed bistros and milk-white sands, it’s no wonder Honfleur became the inspiration for one of the most influential art movements of a generation.

Lying on the southern bank of the Seine estuary, minutes from the Pont de Normandie, this picturesque port and commune inspired some of Europe’s most significant 19th-century painters, and gave rise to the early Impressionist movement.

Among the artists inspired by the beauty of Honfleur were masters Claude Monet, Eugène Boudin, Johan Jongkind and Gustave Courbet, who together formed the École de Honfleur (Honfleur school). Indeed, it was Boudin who described Honfleur’s La Ferme Saint Simeon Inn (where the artists would live together in the town) as ‘the most ravishing spot in the world’ — such was the adoration felt towards this charming French river port.

Today, Honfleur holds fast to its artistic heritage, and its historic harbour is still the focus of artists hoping to capture the magic of the original Impressionist masters. If you too would like to trace the origins of Honfleur’s Impressionist past, our luxury Seine river cruises present the perfect opportunity to unearth the town’s rich artistic legacy.

Discover more about Honfleur and its impact on the Impressionist masters below.

honfleur harbor

A Sweeping Artistic Legacy to Savour

Impoverished and in need of a break from the debauchery of 19th-century Paris, several artists fled the City of Light for the sea breezes and salt marshes of Normandy — travelling west on the gentle waters of the Seine.

Arriving at the mouth of the English Channel, Monet and his counterparts were struck by the shimmering coastal sunlight, the wide blue skies laced with cloud, and of course, the unique beauty and character of Honfleur. Here they set up their easels along the banks of the Seine, and put paint to canvas in an entirely new way.

Monet first travelled to Honfleur under invitation from friend and associate Eugène Boudin, a Honfleurais. Together, the two artists lived and worked in the Hotel La Ferme Saint Simeon, a timber-framed inn whose grounds backed on to the tranquil marshes leading to the shoreline. Monet, in particular, was hugely inspired by the coastal vistas offered by this unique lodging, and is said to have mastered water and sky during his tenure in Honfleur.

The original inn of La Ferme Saint Simeon still exists today, though we doubt it’s possible to pay for food and lodgings in quite the same way - Monet and co would offer original works as payment for their supper, and would pay for their rooms through their often meagre earnings.

la ferme saint simeon

Still, La Ferme Saint Simeon is an absolute must-visit for those interested in the works of Monet, Boudin and Courbet, as well as those with a taste for French fine dining. Award-winning Michelin Star head chef, Erwan Louaisil, draws inspiration from coast and country throughout the hotel’s gourmet menu, tempting art fans to extend their visit with a luxury lunch in the midst of this magnificent former art colony.

In town, traces of the École de Honfleur can be found everywhere. Honfleur’s historic Vieux Bassin harbour front is as pretty and elegant today as it would have appeared to the Impressionists, comprising lofty townhouses overlooking a sheltered basin that perfectly mirrors the blue sky above.

The galleries are new, however, and there are lots of them, each providing the opportunity to buy reprints of some of the Impressionists’ most famous works — from Monet’s Rue de la Bavolle to Boudin’s Le Havre, The Port.   

But to see authentic examples of the Impressionists’ work, you’ll need to visit the town’s foremost heritage centre, the Musée Eugène-Boudin. Located down narrow byway steps from the Vieux Bassin, this charming museum houses a vast collection of works from the École de Honfleur, as well as other objects and artefacts showcasing the history of these pioneering artists.

While the Musée Eugène-Boudin houses several Monets and Courbets, the real star of the show here is Boudin. His vast, threatening canvases have a strong elemental quality, and draw you in with their scale, colour and vision. The poet Baudelaire perhaps summed up Boudin’s work best, once praising them as “meteorological beauties”.

Once you’ve exhausted Honfleur’s artistic timeline, don’t forget that the town has other cultural attractions to enjoy, not least Saint-Catherine’s Church.

Thought to have been built in the early 15th century, Saint-Catherine’s is the oldest and largest wooden church in France, and was constructed by the ‘Axe masters’ of Normandy’s naval yards. Like their Norman and Viking ancestors, these skilled craftsmen used no saws when building the church all those years ago, relying instead on their skill with an axe to create the oak frame of this magnificent structure.

port honfleur

Other fascinating sights not to be missed during a visit to Honfleur include St. Stephen’s Church, Chapelle de Grâce, the Vieux Honfleur Museum and the Salt Barns — two 17th-century buildings once used to store 10,000 tonnes of salt for preserving fish when fishing boats landed in port.

Experience Honfleur with Scenic

Trace the steps of the Impressionist masters from Paris to Honfleur during a luxury Seine river cruise with Scenic. Beginning your journey amid the historic boulevards of the City of Light, you’ll travel west on the peaceful waters of the Seine through some of northern France’s most beautiful landscapes, just as the Impressionists did two hundred years ago.

Once you reach Normandy, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to explore the historic towns, villages and heritage sites of this charming region. As part of our Freechoice collection, you can choose to walk the historic Normandy beaches, the site of the D-Day landings, or explore the region’s famous Calvados route, sampling fine ciders and varietals along the way.

Our luxury river cruises on the Seine provide the perfect way to explore the beautiful region which inspired the Impressionists. For more information or to book, please call 0808 256 7832 and our customer service team will be happy to help you.

Image credtis: Wikipedia Creative Commons



Dominic Keely
Dominic Keely
Dominic is Scenic's Marketing Exec. His favourite river is the Seine, because of the rich history of the region. Dom's a huge football and Manchester United fan, and plays on a team himself.