Painting in the Dordogne River Valley of France

A Painting Trip to the Dordogne Valley

Panoramic photo of the Dordogne River Valley from Domme, by John Hulsey
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

Painting in Domme

   “Comme trouvez-vous Domme, Monsieur?” (How do you find Domme?), asked the smiling shopkeeper and his wife when I wandered in with my gear at the end of a perfect day painting in the village.  I took their question literally and began to explain in French that I searched on the internet and read books, and then used my GPS in the car to find Domme.

   “Non, non monsieur, aimez-vous Domme?” they rephrased.  (Do you like Domme?)   Laughing at my thick-headedness, I responded that I found Domme to be very interesting and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful villages in all of Dordogne, the Department in which Domme is located.  The Dordogne is part of the larger region known as The Perigord, or Aquitaine, after Eleanor of Aquitaine.  After wandering around the ancient streets and back alleys for two days, I was thoroughly enchanted.  There is so much interesting architecture, verdant greenery (including palm trees), and terrific aerial views of the Dordogne valley in Domme, that it is a veritable feast of potential subjects for the painter.  The writer Henry Miller, who spent some time in the Dordogne, referred to the area as the nearest thing to "paradise on earth".

Watercolor painting of a street in Domme, France, by John Hulsey 
Afternoon Light                               Watercolor                           John Hulsey

   Watercolor painting of back lane in Domme, France, by 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.

Photo of Fog at Sunrive over the Dordogne River Valley, France, by John Hulsey      Photograph of Fog Lifting over Dordogne Valley, France, by John Hulsey
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.

Plein air oil painting of woman in park, Domme, France, by John Hulsey      Watercolor painting of old windmill, Domme, France, by John Hulsey
                  Cliff Walk               Oil                 John Hulsey           The Old Mill        Watercolor         John Hulsey

   Photograph of watercolor plein air setup in Domme France by 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.
    The 11th century marked the beginning of the repopulation of Perigord. It was divided in two until the end of the Middle Ages by the Hundred Years War and then by the Wars of Religion. This explains why there are so many castles and fortified churches and villages. Many of them are in almost perfect condition and relatively untouched by the periods that followed. In the 12th century, the need to counter occupation by the English and hold up the advance of Catharism resulted in a growth in the number of monasteries in the region, built by differing religious orders. During this period of repopulation, numerous new abbeys were built and the old abbeys were restored using new architectural techniques.  For example, stone vaulting was employed instead of timbers for fire prevention purposes.  This new style of construction was known as Romanesque art, and is evident everywhere in Perigord. It is characterized by simple, almost severe forms, carved out of the golden, light sandstone that is one of the major assets of Perigordian architecture.  In the 12th century there were as many as four hundred Romanesque churches in Perigord!  In 1283 the village of Domme was founded by Philip the Bold in order to keep the English, who were established in Gascony, from expanding into the area once again.  Later, between 1307 and 1318, the Knights Templar were imprisoned in the towers which flank the Porte des Tours, or main gate.  The remains of the ancient wall are still intact, and one must drive through the narrow old gates to enter the village, too narrow, thankfully, for the large tour buses to get in. 

              Photo of the Gate of the Knights Templar, Domme, France, by John Hulsey        Photo of Deux Cheveau in Domme, France, by John Hulsey                                  Views of Domme                           

Onward and Downward!

   One cannot go to the Perigord area and not visit one of the prehistoric Upper - Paleolithic cave sites to see the ancient work of our artistic predecessors. For us, it wasn’t a tough decision - Lascaux, or rather, Lascaux II, was on our hit list.  Located just outside the village of Montignac, Lascaux II is billed as an exact replica of the original cave itself, which had to be closed to the public because of the deterioration the cave paintings had suffered from the exhalations of the visitors.  We were not sure what to expect of our visit because of this.  A great part of the power of the experience surely lies in the presence of the original paintings and the rocky subterranean space that they inhabit. To their credit, the French did a remarkable job in the re-creation, and the paintings in it are very impressive and interesting and definitely worth seeing.

Cave Paintings in Lascaux II, France

    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.

    “Photos of cave paintings provide a very limited understanding of them as cannot hope to enter into the ancient “dialogue with the caves” without experiencing the images in all the multisensorial richness of the caves themselves.  Add fear; uncertain footing, flickering lamplight; moving shadows; the sounds of dripping water, the cave floor underfoot, and children’s cries; the smell of humid limestone confronted by the smoldering, sizzling juniper wick of a fat-burning lamp or torch, and one begins to reassemble the original cloak of context, meaning and state of mind that wrapped itself around the visual perception of paintings and engravings.”
                           Randall White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind

Cave Paintings in Lascaux II, France

    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.

Photo of La Roque Gageac, Dordogne, France, by John Hulsey
La Roque Gageac from the overlook at Marqueyssac

Hanging Gardens and La Roque Gageac

    On our last day in Dordogne, we visited the delightful “suspended” gardens of Marqueyssac, located near Vezac, a short drive west from Domme.  Ann and I spent the day there enjoying both the gardens themselves and the magnificent aerial views of the Dordogne valley.  There is something here for every painter to enjoy, from the 18th century chateau to the boxwood parterres, the shady forest walks and the cliff-side panoramas.  There are numerous great painting spots with exceptional scenery, including one with a bird’s-eye view of the picturesque village of La Roque Gageac nestled between the sheer cliffs and the bank of the Dordogne river below.  To read the Perspectives article on the Marquessac gardens, click here.

     Photo of Gardens at Marqueyssac, Dordogne, by John Hulsey        Photo of a stone borie at Marqueyssac gardens, Dordogne, France, by John Hulsey
Views of Marqueyssac

    Besides 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.

       Photo of La Roque Gageac, Dordogne, France, by John Hulsey             Photo of La Roque Gageac, Dordogne, France, by John Hulsey
Views of La Roque Gageac

            Photo of a Gabare on the Dordogne River, by John Hulsey

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.

Photo of Hot Air Balloons over the Dordogne Valley, by John Hulsey      Photo of Sunset over the Dordogne River Valley, France, by John Hulsey

To see more of our travels in and around Domme, watch the slide show below.



Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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