Dating from 1880, Coucher de soleil à Lavacourt is one of a group of landscapes that Claude Monet painted showing the effects of the harsh winter at the beginning of that year. This picture relates closely to Soleil couchant sur la Seine, effet d'hiver, painted during the same period and now in the Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, as well as to his famous 1872-1873 painting Impression, soleil levant, which would give the Impressionists their name and which is now in the Musée Marmottan, Paris. Coucher de soleil à Lavacourt is distinguished both by the absorbing spontaneity with which Monet appears to have painted the scene before him, and by its distinguished provenance, having belonged to the prominent Norman collector, a friend and patron of the artist, Félix François Depeaux.
Monet was clearly fascinated by the various effects that the harsh winter at the end of 1879 brought about, and more so by the break-up of the ice. The artist was living in Vétheuil, by the Seine; the village of Lavacourt was on the other side of the river, to the West, and provided a motif that fascinated him, resulting in a string of vigorously executed pictures as the sun set behind the houses in the winter evenings. Monet was known for exposing himself to extreme weather in the search for the perfect subject, and apparently wandered through the area during this period of snow, ice and cold, with the sunlight lasting only a matter of hours in these short Northern days, capturing scene after scene of nature in turmoil. This turmoil had been so great, at the beginning of the thaw, that huge chunks of ice from further up the Seine had floated down, ravaging some of the gardens and causing some damage to Monet's own. Alice Hoschedé, with whom Monet was living in Vétheuil, wrote to her husband describing the event:
'On Monday, at five in the morning, I was woken by a terrifying noise, like thunder; a few minutes later, I heard Madeleine knocking on M. Monet's window, telling him to get up. I immediately did the same, while the booming sound was mixed with cries coming from Lavacourt. I quickly ran to the window, and, dark as it was, I could see blocks of white falling; this time, it was the real break-up of the ice-floes' (A. Hoschedé, quoted in D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, p. 152).
The following day, Monet took Alice and their respective children on a tour of the area, observing the intense beauty of it all. Monet clearly appreciated the potential of these weather conditions as a painter, writing to Georges de Bellio, 'Here we had a terrible 'débâcle' and of course I tried to make something of it' (Monet, quoted in ibid., p. 152). Coucher de soleil à Lavacourt is one of the pictures that showed him taking advantage of the strange scenes around him, capturing with snapshot-like immediacy the transparent light and pure winter beauty of such a potent landscape. The theme of a powerful natural phenomenon may have appealed all the more to Monet as it came in the wake of the death of his wife, Camille.
For Monet, the benefits of painting en plein air far outweighed the questions of physical discomfort of pain that working out of doors in a situation like this might have involved. 'My studio!' he once protested in an interview, 'But I have never had one, and personally I don't understand why anybody would want to shut themselves up in some room. Maybe for drawing, sure; but not for painting' (Monet, quoted in C. Stuckey (ed.), Monet: A Retrospective, New York, 1985, p. 90). In the same year that Coucher de soleil à Lavacourt was painted, Théodore Duret celebrated Monet's pleinairisme, which was still a relative innovation, extolling the artist's abilities to capture fleeting moments such as the sunset in this painting:
'While using this method of painting in direct contact with the observed scene, Claude Monet was quite naturally led to take into account effects overlooked by his predecessors. The fleeting impressions once garnered by the landscape artist sketching out of doors and then lost and forgotten in the process of transforming the sketch into a picture in the studio can now be seized by the artist working in nature; he can rapidly capture the most ephemeral, the most delicate effect at the very moment it appears before him. Thus Monet has succeeded in rendering all the play of light and the tiniest reflections of the ambient air. He has reproduced the ardent colours of sunset and the varied tonalities with which the dawn light infuses the mist rising from the water or lying above the countryside. He has rendered all the harshness of midday light falling upon objects and eradicating their shadows. He has known to cast his eye across the whole gamut of grey tonalities of clouds, rain, or fog. In brief, his brush has caught those myriad fleeting impressions communicated to the spectator's eye by changes in the sky, in the weather. It was to describe him that the term impressionist was first, quite aptly, created' (T. Duret, 'Le peintre Claude Monet', pp. 70-72, quoted in C. Stuckey (ed.), ibid., p. 72).
It is Monet's immersion in nature that has permitted him to notice the subtleties of his subjects; and of course, it was in another similar painting, the 1872-1873 work in the Marmottan, that the notion of such an impression had first been conceived. In Coucher de soleil à Lavacourt, with the fiery ball of the sun descending over an already twilit landscape, Monet is looking both at nature and at his own artistic past, in creating an image of incredible freshness and spontaneity, that tells of the artist frantically working to capture the red of the sun and the bruised greys and purples of the winter sky, and its reflection over the strangely decimated landscape around the Seine.
The first recorded owner of Coucher de soleil à Lavacourt was Félix François Depeaux, the son of a wealthy merchant who lived in Rouen. Indeed, it was because of his encouragement that Monet would immortalise that city in his own works. Depeaux owned a fantastic collection, in terms of quality and quantity, of Impressionist paintings including over fifty by Sisley alone. He was a friend of Monet's brother, and Jean-Pierre Hoschedé, in his memoir of his step-father, would recall a voyage made with the family on Depeaux's boat. Of the pictures by Monet that Depeaux owned, three were donated to the museum in his native city as well as a group of works by some of the other celebrated Impressionists.