Considered by many as the greatest ocean liner ever built, the S.S. NORMANDIE stands to this day as a paragon not only of shipbuilding, but of Art Deco design and advertising.
Begun in 1931, NORMANDIE was built in Saint-Nazaire, on France’s west coast by the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT). The ship enjoyed an unusual level of financial support from the French Government, who saw it as an opportunity to promote French industry and prestige abroad. Travelers across the Atlantic spent 4-5 days captive within a liner’s world, and what better way to promote the glory of the French Empire than to have a floating exposition of her finest engineers, craftsmen and artists.
NORMANDIE was twice the tonnage of the CGT’s flagship ILE DE FRANCE, and when she entered service in 1935 was the largest and most powerful passenger ship afloat. Her unique clipper-like sweeping bow was paired with a bulbous forefoot under the water line. This made the massive ship appear to glide elegantly through the waves with minimal bow wake; all while using 30% less power and fuel than her later speed rival Cunard’s RMS QUEEN MARY.
An innovative placement of her stacks allowed for long open rooms down the length of the ship, which became elegant salons and dining rooms. The finest French metalworkers, cabinetmakers and furniture designers of the day provided the bones of her design which were then decked with René Lalique Glass, Sèvres Porcelain and Aubusson tapestries. Foremost French designers vied for commissions for the most luxurious staterooms. Artists were encouraged to use motifs from France’s colonies in Asia and Africa, an exoticism that already fit well within the Art Deco aesthetic.
At her launch, the French Line commissioned artists to create posters and publicity for the liner. One of them became perhaps the most iconic advertising image of the Art Deco movement, the face-on view of NORMANDIE’s sharp bow by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre, seen below. Instantly, the vessel became a symbol of prestige and elegance, and her First-Class cabins were host to luminaries such as Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire, Noel Coward, Irving Berlin, Walt Disney and Ernest Hemingway.
In this advertising image, this prestige is brought together with the fine established French house, Champagne de Venoge. The ship is shown at speed, with steaming rolling off her stacks and flags flying, but with little wake- a comfortable passage. Her message to American passengers- travel to Europe on the NORMANDIE, and see famous landmarks like those depicted- the Eiffel Tower, the Roman Coliseum and the Spanish Segovia Aqueduct, all while sipping French champagne, of course.
Given the date on the painting, and that it features de Venoge’s Cordon Bleu (Blue Ribbon) label champagne, this poster was likely created to celebrate the NORMANDIE’s 1937 recapture of the Blue Riband, the speed trophy for the fastest Atlantic crossing by a passenger liner.
NORMANDIE would have likely served many more years, but it was war that changed her fortunes. In 1939, along with a few other transatlantic liners she sought refuge in New York Harbor at the outbreak of hostilities between Germany and Poland. When France fell in 1940, she remained, guarded by US troops against sabotage.
In 1941, after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the United States took possession of the NORMANDIE under right of angary and began conversion to a troopship. Renamed the USS LAFAYETTE, she was under tight timelines to begin helping the war effort. In February of 1942, a welder’s spark set the ship ablaze, and the Navy’s disengagement of the ship’s fire protections made fighting the fire difficult. Fire trucks and fire boats poured over 6000 tons of water onto the ship, which flooded her lower compartments unevenly and the ship eventually listed and capsized. In 1943, the ship was stripped of superstructure and righted in what was the world's most expensive salvage operation. The US Navy attempted to use the structure of the vessel for another ship, but the cost was too great. She was set aside until the war’s end and was sold for scrap in 1946.
Parts of the great ship remain, and pieces of her can be found on a few modern cruise ships as well as in museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, with models and drawings in maritime museums like the Musée national de la Marine in Paris and the QUEEN MARY museum in Long Beach, California. She continues to influence both ship design and land architecture with several vessels currently afloat and modern buildings acknowledging the NORMANDIE as inspiration. Her influence on art was even greater, and to this day NORMANDIE is seen as one of the finest and most complete expressions of the Art Deco movement ever created.
Signed L.H., an artist whose name is unknown, his initials mark the original advertising art done at the Industrial Trade School Arles, France which closed in 1953.
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