Twinning port cities through artists’ eyes
Twinning towns are known to be arrangements between two cities to foster friendship and understanding of other cultures. They often symbolise shared cultures and values such as between two port cities who have links through a common history, in good and bad times. In recent years, twinning arrangements are perceived to be a bit dusty. Success of twinning relationships are now often measured in financial terms: trade, tourism, investments, whereas shared values are often undervalued. The question is whether it is possible to discover parallels through the hidden links of art and culture and what this means for the community engagement in port cities.
For many ports in northwestern Europe the 1870s were groundbreaking years. The maritime revolution was in full swing. Ships’ capacity doubled, sails turned into steamships and factory chimneys were gradually appearing on the horizon. The Suez Canal just opened on 1869. In 1872 Rotterdam had decided to make an end once and for all for the disadvantageous inland location by digging a new waterway to the North Sea and so did Amsterdam. Similarly Le Havre constructed the Canal de Tancarville in 1887.
Two painters impersonalise the ‘jumelage’ between port cities
Two painters impersonalise the ‘jumelage’ between port cities, particularly the ports along the Normandie to the North Sea coast. Eugene Boudin, descent of a seafarer’s family was born in port town Honfleur, opposite of Le Havre. With a scholarship by the city of Le Havre he devoted his time painting beach scenes and seascapes. At the North Sea side, there was Johan Berthold Jongkind who grew up in the port towns of Maassluis and Vlaardingen and got his art education in The Hague. In 1846 Jongkind went to Paris on a royal scholarship and became part of a movement of young ambitious painters. The first years in France his success was short-lived, partly because of his alcohol abuse. Although he made lots of friends, including Eugene Boudin, he returned to Rotterdam where he rediscovered his fascination for canals, little streets and harbours.
Back in France in 1861 his friend Boudin invited Jongkind to Le Havre where he met and painted ‘en plein air’ with the young Monet and others. Being surrounded with so much talent, these friends made waves in the art scene of Paris, much to the dismay of the establishment. In 1863, the famous Paris Salon refused two thirds of the presented paintings, which included the works of Jongkind, Courbet, Pissarro and Edouard Manet (a.o.) and after fierce complaints at the address of Napoleon III, the refused artists got the chance to display their paintings in the Salon des Refuses.
Whether it has to do with his friendship with Jongkind we don’t know but Boudin visited Rotterdam a few times and painted Leuvehaven and the fish Market like he painted le Bassin de la Barre of Le Havre and Honfleur and the fish market in Trouville. On the way to Rotterdam, Dordrecht was a favourite stopover because of its many waterfront perspectives. Likewise Jongkind made numerous paintings of port scenes in Le Havre, Honfleur, Rouen and Paris. In Honfleur they gathered at the Ferme Saint Simeon in Honfleur, while in Rotterdam’s neighbouring portcity of Dordrecht they mingled in the local artists’ community.
Around 1874, the ‘refused’ organised their own Salons where they displayed their works of art to the crowd. The movement of Impressionism was born. Jongkind was not one the exhibitors, disappointed as he was being refused many times at previous salons. Nonetheless, these two early impressionists taught painting ‘en plein air’ to the new generation of impressionists and learned them how to capture the moment by painting instantly from nature to the eye and hand.
What do these twinning links say about parallel evolution paths of port cities? The traces of time of port cities are not only visible on geographic maps, excavated canals and port basins and large scale construction projects. The dozens of paintings of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Dordrecht, Dunkirque, Dieppe, Le Havre, Honfleur, Rouen and Paris from the early impressionists mirror the parallel development of a maritime revolution, but also the spirit of friendship and freedom of artistic expression.
A port explorer will be mesmerised by the tangible traces when visiting these port cities ‘en plein air’.
Where digital twins of ports are emerging and friendships between people go online in the 21st century, we seem to have forgotten that our mindsets are shaped by visible traces of a common past. For those who live their lives online the good thing is that 19th century artists too are sharing their artwork via their ‘own’ instagram and twitter accounts, but a port explorer will be mesmerised by the tangible traces when visiting these port cities ‘en plein air’.
Author: Maurice Jansen, senior researcher, Erasmus UPT and LDE PortCityFutures and art lover. This is the second in a series on impressionist art in port cities.