In a remarkable sixty-year career, Monet painted a staggering twenty-six hundred canvases. Of these, around three-hundred fifty were executed between the years 1878 and 1881 during his time at Vétheuil, a small and fairly remote coastal town about forty miles from Paris. Of these seascapes and meadowscapes only this single rendering of the Fécamp jetty at sea level was executed. Thanks to extant letters from Monet detailing his painting excursions on a near-daily basis, La Jetée de Fécamp par gros temps can concretely be dated to a six-week time span in March or April of 1881.
With an ailing wife and financial difficulties, Monet moved to Vétheuil in 1878 so that he could continue work on his popular seascapes while also living prudently. His substantial artistic production during this time was partly inspired by the wild beauty of the coastal scenery, and partly by the ever more dire need for financial resources to support his family, including two young children. By the time he had moved to Vétheuil, Monet was borrowing money extensively from his friends.
Monet executed the majority of his early seascapes on the coast of Normandy, a region to which he was deeply attached, and to which he returned throughout his career (see fig. 1). In the spring of 1881 Monet spent several weeks in Fécamp, a fishing port he had visited briefly in 1868. La Jetée de Fécamp par gros temps balances the tumultuous waves and stinging salt sprays with the stripe of dark hues that composes the jetty. The lighthouse and sailboat in the distance offer some reassurance that the seascape is navigable and not as treacherous as it might appear in the foreground. Painted at sea level with the salt spraying in his face, one can only imagine where and how Monet set up his easel in order to capture this view. Often going to great lengths to establish himself as an exclusively en plein air painter, at one point he declared to a reporter that the entire countryside of Vétheuil was his studio.
The effect of a choppy, misty sea coast is achieved through Monet’s deep understanding and skilled implementation of atmospheric perspective. The soft blues and purples typically used to create the illusion of spatial depth within a canvas are used here to show the depth of the water beneath the waves in the foreground as well as the expanse of the ocean.
Turning to this particular landscape, Monet followed in the footsteps of Gustave Courbet, who had painted some of his best works on the coast of Normandy (see fig. 2). Heather Lemonedes wrote that, "The Fécamp pictures should be viewed against the backdrop of Courbet's seascapes, or 'landscapes of the sea,' as he preferred to call them. Courbet first journeyed to the Normandy coast when he was twenty-one and was immediately captivated by it. He made numerous return visits in the 1860s, painting the sea and the beach and establishing a reputation as a marine painter. In 1866 the Count de Choiseul lent Courbet his house at Trouville, where the artist spent time in the company of Monet and Boudin. One critic described the sea as producing 'the same emotion as love' in Courbet. Such passion... would have undoubtedly resonated with Monet. While Monet's depictions of the sea at Fécamp are more abstract, more insistently referential to the act of painting, they evoke a fascination with the subject that was in keeping with Courbet's reverence for the sea" (H. Lemonedes in Monet in Normandy (exhibition catalogue), Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, 2006-07, pp. 82-83).
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