Montmartin-sur-mer is the sort of town you don’t tell people about when you stay here on holiday. You may say you were in the Manche, not far from Coutances perhaps. Or up the coast from Granville. Because if you tell them about this sleepy, happily little town near miles of sandy beach, next year they may just turn up. And the joy of those miles of beach is you shouldn’t run into anyone you know, unless you bought them with you.
What to do here? As with all quiet places there is always something going on if you know where to look. There is a Wednesday market, a post office so architecturally stylish it’s worth writing a postcard for, and a few events across the summer to keep everyone amused. But our favourite thing is to raid the local shops for a picnic and head west across the marais, the marshes, to the dunes to loll and chat and walk out the sea and race the tides.
At lunchtime on the sands, and again as the sun moves toward the horizon, slices of aromatic air will cut through the fresh sea breezes as families eat together; Generations gathering under an umbrella carried by a proud father, around a folding table fetched easily by a strong teenage son, chairs by sisters and daughters. A grandmother well covered against the sunlight, a grandfather slow, carrying a blanket, fussed over. A scene Monet would recognise.
In the company of cows
When we heard an artist had made his second home in Montmartin-sur-mer we assumed he was called, like us, to the nearby coast, to the ever changing skies and seas. But no. The skies interested Félix Planquette but the sea, not so much. What appealed to Félix was the marais, and the cows.
You may not have heard of Félix but he was something of a celebrity in his day. At the beginning of the 20th century reviews of his exhibitions rejoiced in the glorious colours, applauded his sensitive handling of the sun’s changing light and were surprisingly nice about all the cows.
The 1925 ‘Artistic Bulletin’ said;
“When Planquette shows us a landscape of Normandy, the animals that it contains are not just as alive as
portraits, but they are still coloured to perfection, “waxed”, one might say … as if photographed in colour under the light dazzling a film studio. Planquette manages to get striking reliefs by the accumulation of paradoxical dazzling colours and elusive lights…immortalising them in masterpieces.”
This was Manche countryside at its most visually extraordinary.
Handsome, as a pirate
From a family of merchants, Félix studied painting in Arras, Lille then with Adrien Demont and his group of painters in Wissant, further north east along the French coast. Here a naturalistic style dominated in paintings of fishing families and the coast, with occasional dips into a romantic past. One tableau gives us our only portrait of Félix. Gifted painter Virginie Demont-Breton used his charming young face in 1893 for that of local hero and corsair Jean-Bart.
The painting was destroyed in WW2 but a few copies as postcards survive.
As the century turned Félix was making a name for himself. He won the 1901 Brizart prixe and a third class medal in 1902, then a second class medal in 1905. This one came with a travel grant and Félix took himself off to Spain (painting some fine bulls) then Normandy.
Writing ‘Artists of my time’ Emile Langlade in 1929 recalls “Planquette discovered in a corner of the Avranchin an inspirational landscape with unpolluted light shows, so he settled there.” Félix once told him how the local fishermen encouraged his work “I bet Mr. Planquette” said one “that you could sell that for a franc!” “A hundred sous!” said another.
Their encouragement worked. Félix’s painting of the Bay of Mont St Michel from the heights of Avranches, is considered one of his finest works.
By 1908 Félix was something of a celebrity, as this fawning newspaper article makes clear:
The Northern Review published in Paris 5 April 1908
Tall and thin like a cavalry officer, Félix Planquette (who did military service in Portugal), is the perfect type of man from the North, that is to say his shyness is soft as a Melissinde of Tripoli, his eyes are as blue as a deep sky of Venice and his hair is blonde as the most exotic corn. If he had lived a few years earlier, that is to say at the time of the conquest of Gaul by the Romans, he would be the subject of comment by Julius Caesar. To complete his friendly face a moustache fine and curly, long enough, falls on each side of his lip.
The friendliness of Félix Planquette is distinguished, cautious and discreet. In his studio in Paris, rue Lamarck, a concern for order and clarity is revealed. On the wall are a host of Arab weapons, a reproduction of a Rembrandt portrait. On shelves, carefully arranged, sketches specify the range of colours of the sun…
He was also considered great fun. An incident with some egg cups didn’t translate very clearly but was apparently the height of late 19th century comedy.
Found, in Normandy
Creatively, Félix found everything he was looking for in the rich countryside of Normandy. It was a landscape he compared favourably to Wissant as “less bitter, more cheerful; the atmosphere is clearer and less turbulent; but the sky possesses prestigious sunsets.” He kept a studio in Montmartre but was always in a hurry to return to the peaceful fields and “the wind that rises from the fleeing sea and above, the immense clouds and mists.”
Out of fashion, and favour
But while he perfected the sun bouncing of the rump of Normandy’s bovine beauties, art that won awards before the First World War was exactly the sort of art that the modern movements railed against. Félix continued to paint his glowing vision but the reviews became shorter and the prices of his paintings never reached their early promise.
By the time of his death in 1964 Félix was chronically unfashionable. The wild realism that bought crowds to his shows as a young man was now a horror for educated critics. At best his sunsets, fields and cows were the ambition of Sunday painters. We cannot find an obituary for Félix Planquette.
Yes, notes that say he died in 1964 but they neglect to mention he was once a laughing young man who posed as a pirate for a lady artist. Or that his blonde curls and fine moustache turned heads from Paris to Dunkirk. Or how his paintings captured those precious moments as the sun sets with unique brilliance. Or just how good Félix was at painting his beloved cows. We are happy to put that right, and celebrate this very able artist, again.
A small word of warning for visitors seeking peace and quiet. For four days every July the “Chauffer dans la noirceur” ‘heat in the dark’ music festival draws around 10,000 people to Montmartin sur Mer. Then it all goes nicely quiet again.