Painting in the Dordogne River Valley of France
A Painting Trip to the Dordogne Valley
View From Domme
“France may one day exist no more, but the Dordogne will live on just as dreams live on and nourish the souls of men.” - Henry Miller
Afternoon Light Watercolor John Hulsey
A Walk in Domme Watercolor John Hulsey
We chose to arrive in Domme in early Spring, on “the shoulders” of the tourist season to avoid the crowds and have the place nearly to ourselves. We like to travel then, not only to miss the tourists and avoid the high prices, but also to enjoy the peace and solitude of the quiet villages which is so necessary to creative work. In the cool night air of spring, the Dordogne River valley fills with fog and the view from the Belvedere de la Barre overlook is splendid at sunrise. We grabbed our coffee each morning and walked to the Belvedere to enjoy the gradual lifting of the fog as the sun painted the tops of the foggy clouds with its warm golden light. Only the very tops of the hills poked above the solid blanket of cloud which filled the valley. We stood transfixed as the hot air balloons slowly rose above the nearby village of La Roque Gageac and sailed toward Domme.
Views from Domme
As the fog dissipated, we could enjoy the panoramic vision of hilltop castles, the winding river, and lush farm fields spread out before us. Wonderful! Later that morning, we walked along the promontory path to a little narrow park where we could paint the view. As we explored more each day, we found an interesting old windmill surrounded by flowering Chestnut trees which likewise demanded to be painted. Perfect weather, intriguing lanes filled with charming old buildings, and friendly people all worked to make our visit extremely pleasant.
Cliff Walk Oil John Hulsey The Old Mill Watercolor John Hulsey
Plein Air Painting Set-Up in Domme, France
The Repopulation of Perigord
The village site began in the 4th century as a Roman Bastide, or fortified walled camp, built on a high point of land with a commanding view over the river valley below. As the Romans slowly abandoned the area, successive barbarian invasions resulted in the depopulation of the southwest of France. Forests were to cover the land that had until then been cultivated in Perigord—hence the name Black Perigord.
Views of Domme
Onward and Downward!
No one knows the exact purpose of these large and complex animal and hunting scenes. We can only try to imagine. What we do know is that the Magdalennian-era tribe to which these artists belonged would have had to devote substantial and precious resources to enable the painters to work so many hours on them - hours that the artists were not able to hunt. So the creation of the paintings must have served a very valuable purpose for the group. Perhaps they had religious significance, or were part of a hunting ceremony or rite of passage. We can’t know. One thing is certain: the environment served a specific purpose, and even in the replica one can sense the power it must have had for these early humans. Lascaux II was built very close by the original and is set in a wooded hilltop. The subterranean reproduction is dark, cool, and cavelike. One can appreciate the scale of the drawings and how the artists used the shape of the rock to bring out anatomical features of the animals, and most importantly, how they relate to each other in the grand composition, all things that can’t be gotten from photos.
If you want to see real prehistoric caves, there are many more nearby, more than 200, from which to choose. Besides Lascaux, the most well-known are Les Eyzies, Le Moustier, and La Ferassie, which span 200,000 years of prehistory. The Vezere valley, a UNESCO world heritage site, is home to an abundance of rock shelters, caves and prehistoric works of art. The first major prehistoric excavations took place in Perigord in 1863 after some local workmen unearthed human remains at Les Eyzies during the course of their work. Remnants of Neanderthals (80,000 years old), and Cro-Magnon man (35,000 years old), were gradually uncovered at different depths in the caves overhanging the Vezere river. The valley itself is worth visiting just for the sheer beauty of it.
La Roque Gageac from the overlook at Marqueyssac
Hanging Gardens and La Roque Gageac
Views of MarqueyssacBesides gardens, castles, chateaus and caves, there exists a wealth of painting subjects for the plein air painter in the Dordogne. The landscape of the valley itself, with the river winding lazily through it, is scenery fit for a masterpiece. One can canoe down the river to find a water-side spot or take a ride on an old sailing vessel, called a “Gabare”, from whose decks one can appreciate the slowly-moving scenery. There are also the hot air balloons and even helicopter flights available for photographers. The agricultural aspect of the countryside gives the area a relaxed feel despite the intense tourism going on there during high season.
Views of La Roque Gageac
A Gabare on the Dordogne at La Roque Gageac
The last evening of our visit, we returned to Domme in time to have dinner at a restaurant perched on the edge of the cliff-side which looks north over the Dordogne river and valley below. As the sun began to sink, we were treated to the daily spectacle of hot air balloons launching from La Roque Gageac and sailing towards us on the gentle evening breeze. We watched brightly-colored balloons lit by the golden sunset in the air below us and above us, drifting so near we could hear the conversations of the passengers. We watched the sun sink over the perched castles on the hilltops and had dessert under the emerging stars at twilight, vowing to return again. What a perfect end to our memorable painting trip to the beautiful Dordogne.
To see more of our travels in and around Domme, watch the slide show below.
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