Claude Monet’s lifelong affinity for the landscape of Normandy and its dramatic coastline can be traced back to his childhood. The son of a commercial officer who worked in the trading house in Le Havre, Monet spent his formative years surrounded by the region’s rugged cliffs and powerful waves. His earliest sketches depict scenes from the coastal towns around Le Havre, where he met the landscape painter Eugène Boudin, who became his first teacher and taught him the techniques of painting en plein air that would become the foundation of Monet’s career. At age 19, Monet moved to Paris to advance his career as an artist, but the charm and beauty of the Normandy landscape would lure him back often. Indeed, one of Monet’s most iconic works—the likely namesake of the entire Impressionist movement itself—Impression, soleil levant, depicts an early morning view of Le Havre (see fig. 1). In its color palette, treatment of the sea, and dynamic brushwork, the present work embodies the very essence of this revolutionary artistic movement ignited in Impression, soleil levant.
While the Normandy coast contained no shortage of dramatic vistas, the town of Étretat was a focal point for artists and tourists alike, renowned for its breathtakingly majestic chalk cliffs, defined by patterned striations visible in the sedimentary rock face and three weathered arch formations that jut out into the sea resembling elephant trunks (see fig. 2). Here, against the backdrop of relentless waves, powerful tides, and salt-filled air, the landscape appears as a work of art sculpted by the processes of Mother Nature itself. The novelist Guy de Maupassant, who was a native of the region and became acquainted with Monet during the latter’s frequent visits to Étretat, described the quality of light as the crucial advantage of the Normandy coastline: “I have seen so many other painters pass through this little valley, doubtlessly drawn to the quality of light, so unlike anywhere else! The daylight is as different to places just a few leagues away as the wines of the Bordelais. For here it is dazzling without being harsh; everything is bright but not startling and all imbued with a remarkable subtlety" (Guy de Maupassant, "La Vie d’un paysagiste," in Gil Blas, September 28, 1886; translated from French). This dazzling quality of light, in combination with the breathtaking juxtaposition of shore and sea, served as an irresistible inspiration for many artists in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, among them Boudin, Courbet, Loiseau and Monet.
The present work depicts one of the three rock arches along the coast around Étretat, the Porte d’Aval, as the sun descends beneath the horizon. The contrast between the shimmering water in the shallows and the golden highlights across the sky imbues the canvas with stunning luminosity. Unlike many of Monet’s other canvases of this area, which depict sailboats, leisure seekers, or even commercial activity, Étretat, coucher de soleil is devoid of any sign of human presence. The focus in this work is squarely on the raw beauty of nature: the majesty of the cliffs, the serenity of the sea, the transcendent glow of a setting sun.
Monet first visited Étretat in 1869, but did not spend extended time there until early 1883, when he stayed in town for three months. Over the next three years, he returned to Étretat on numerous occasions and completed approximately 70 canvases featuring views of the coast (see fig. 3). In many examples from this series, as in the present work, Monet focused on the unique rock formations as the central subject, exploring myriad vantage points to heighten their drama and majesty and capturing the interplay of light upon the cliffs and waves during different seasons, times of day and under changing atmospheric conditions. In its repetition of motif and ingenuity in capturing variations in light, Monet’s body of work from Étretat marks his most extensive series from the first half of his career. It also foreshadows his later, even more extensive serial campaigns of the Breton coast, the cathedral in Rouen, and of course, the nymphéas at Giverny. The present work dates from Monet’s first visit to Étretat, and other paintings completed during this visit are found in the Impressionist collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée d'Orsay and the North Carolina Museum of Art (see figs. 4-6). Prominent examples from Monet's later visits from the series are housed at the Phildelphia Museum of Art, the National Museum of Norway and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon (see figs. 7-9).
The many hours Monet spent painting along the coast en plein air were not without adventure. The challenging weather conditions at Étretat often made for the most interesting and dramatic compositions. Writing to Alice Hoschédé of one such adventurous day in 1885, Monet recounted: “I was counting on a rewarding session at the Manneporte, but I had an accident… Completely absorbed, I didn’t see an enormous wave that threw me against the cliff, then I tumbled into the foam with all my gear. For a moment I thought I was lost...finally I managed to crawl out, but, my God, in what a state! My boots, heavy socks, and coat were soaked. The palette in my hand had hit me in the face and my beard was covered with blue, yellow, etc… The worst of it was that I lost my canvas, which I got smashed up” (quoted in Monet: Light, Shadow, and Reflection (exhibition catalogue), Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2017, p. 104).