From the late 19th century to the eve of World War Two, Europe’s best artists flocked to France. There, in a frenzy of self-expression, creatives like Van Gogh, Monet, and Matisse conceived the oil paintings and watercolors that gave them everlasting fame. Today, you can visit most of the spots they immortalized, stand exactly where the painters stood, and take in the same scenery across the country from urbane Paris to sleepy Collioure.

Van Gogh enjoyed painting “Café Terrace at Night” on the spot.
Café Terrace at Night by Vincent Van Gogh
Place du Forum in Arles

Le Café La Nuit in Arles looks very much the same as it did when Van Gogh set up his easel there in 1888, struck by the collisions of color at the site: the rich yellows and oranges of the lanterns hanging from the terrace and candlelit shopfront windows against the blue shadows of night. Next to the café’s pale yellow walls and overhanging awning, you can relax exactly where he sat painting those nights, just a few feet from the mass of tables and chairs. He noted in an enthusiastic letter to his sister that, rather than sketch a street scene and paint it later, he “enormously enjoyed painting on the spot at night.” Judging by the restaurant’s one-star reviews on Tripadvisor, you’ll want to take in the free view from the street and walk somewhere else when you get hungry.

Where to see the painting today: The Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands

It took Seurat two years to paint “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte.”
Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat
Île de la Jatte in Paris

Painted by artists and called home by the famous and powerful, Île de la Jatte is an island in the Seine River right at Paris’s northwest edge. It took Seurat two years to complete the painting (which, in English, is titled A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte); he would regularly return to the riverfront park from 1884 to 1886 to methodically sketch the people escaping the bustle of Paris. In the years since, Île de la Jatte has become more crowded, and city authorities fenced off much of the park’s riverbanks for the sake of safety. But wood-plank walking trails still take you right along the water and into the quieter parts of the island where you can get closer to Seurat’s version of the spot.

Where to see the painting today: The Art Institute of Chicago

You can visit the pond featured in “Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies” at Monet’s home in Giverny.
Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies by Claude Monet
Monet Gardens in Giverny, France

During the last 30 years of his life, as he suffered worsening cataracts, Monet created approximately 250 dreamy, blurry paintings of the flower gardens at his private home in Giverny. The series is called Water Lilies. This painting of his wooden Japanese footbridge was one of the first, completed in the summer of 1899. These days, Monet’s garden is no longer the solitary refuge of an artist and is open for daily tours; you can walk across the famous bridge and stroll the banks of the water lily–choked pond. As you wind along the pathways, you’ll see that Monet didn’t appreciate organization: He left his flowers to grow wherever and however they liked, with minimal gardening.

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Where to see the painting today: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Renoir’s “Bal du moulin de la Galette” captures blue-collar life in Paris in the late 1800s.
Bal du moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Le Moulin de la Galette in Paris, France

On a Sunday afternoon in 1876, Renoir sat among these real-life subjects beneath the Moulin de la Galette, a windmill built in 1622. Fresh from church in their best clothes, blue-collar Parisians would regularly gather by this beloved icon of working-class life on Sundays to dance, drink, and eat late into the night. Patio chairs and tables still crowd the outdoor courtyard beneath the windmill’s wings (which have long since stopped turning), and you can order wine and galettes from the restaurant late into the night, just as the Parisians frozen in Renoir’s brushstrokes did 142 years ago.

Where to see the painting today: The Musée d’Orsay in Paris

 

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Open Window, Collioure by Henri Matisse
Collioure Harbor in Collioure, France

Depressed and broke, Matisse arrived in the Franco-Catalan fishing village of Collioure in 1905 and was immediately struck by the town’s vibrant colors. Today, it is still a quiet village (3,000 people) with salmon-pink low-rise buildings that look out on a lonely Mediterranean harbor near the Spanish border (Collioure is closer to Barcelona than any big French city). Book one of the many hotels with a harbor view, open the tall windows, and look out on the bare masts of sailboats bobbing off the rocky coast, just as they do in Matisse’s painting.

Where to see the painting today: The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

“Rue de l’Épicerie, Rouen” shows the city’s main square during the Friday market.
Rue de l’Épicerie, Rouen (Effect of Sunlight) by Camille Pissarro
Old Market Square in Rouen, France

Pissarro often visited Normandy on France’s rural and gloomy north coast and was captivated by this small medieval town where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. He painted Rouen’s market square three times, but only one painting showed the Friday market in progress, with townspeople swapping francs at market stalls. The weekly market no longer happens, but the old square is ringed with highly rated restaurants. Grab a bite and look up at the tips of the Rouen Cathedral, which was built in 1063 and is open for tours six days a week. Then learn more about the famous martyr at the Joan of Arc Museum, which opened in Rouen’s Archiepiscopal Palace in 2015.

Where to see the painting today: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Manet’s painting “La Musique aux Tuileries” shows a weekly concert in 1862.
La Musique aux Tuileries by Édouard Manet
Tuileries Garden in Paris, France

The Tuileries Garden is more a public square than it is strictly a garden; pathways, benches, and fountains split its obsessively manicured blocks of hedges, tulips, and other flowers. Art critics of the time considered contemporary urban scenes to have less artistic worth than other works, but Manet saw beauty in the mundane comfort of his wealthy, bourgeois peers enjoying a weekly concert in 1862. While there are no longer weekly concerts, the Fête des Tuileries—a traditional carnival with 60 or so rides, including a wooden horse carousel—sets up in June and stays through August. The garden also sits next door to the Louvre, another can’t-miss attraction if you’ve already come this far for the sake of art.

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Where to see the painting today: The National Gallery in London

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