Monet painted this extraordinarily fresh and vital seascape—from edge to edge, all churning, frothy waves beneath a bright, blustery sky—during a two-week visit in September 1880 to Les Petites-Dalles, a tiny fishing village turned modest vacation spot some forty miles up the Normandy coast from his native Le Havre. This was his first trip to the ocean in seven years, and it immediately invigorated him, initiating a sustained campaign of coastal expeditions that occupied him for much of the decade and changed the course of his art. The contradictions of contemporaneity, which had galvanized his work during the 1870s, now gave way to the magisterial confrontation of natural elements, unencumbered by human presence. Effectively inaugurating this transformation, the present Vague is among the most radical of all Monet’s seascapes—the composition pared down to a nearly abstract opposition of sea and sky, yet the forms rendered with a powerful painterly immediacy.
“By permitting nothing to be in the scene except stripped-down nature, Monet was testing his powers as a painter to make the image interesting through the limited means of color and touch; he was also literally wiping the slate clean and starting anew,” Paul Tucker has written. “These paintings forthrightly reveal what his many other canvases of the decade attest to more indirectly—namely, that he had set himself to a new task. From here on, he was going to allow nature to speak on her own about her awesome powers and boundless splendor” (Claude Monet: Life and Art, New York, 1995, pp. 110-111).
Monet’s trip to Les Petites-Dalles came at a time of profound personal and artistic reassessment. His first wife Camille had died the previous autumn, and he was deeply grieving. His income in 1879 had plummeted to half of what it had been earlier in the decade, yet his commitments were far greater—two sons of his own to support, plus Alice Hoschedé and her brood of six, who had moved in with him and Camille at Vétheuil while her husband tended to his bankrupt textile business in Paris. Determined to attract new buyers, Monet braved the contempt of his avant-garde colleagues in spring 1880 and made his first attempt in a decade to enter the state-sponsored Salon. The jury rejected the more experimental of his two submissions (“much more to my own taste,” he claimed) and accepted the other (“more bourgeois”). Although he received some positive press at the Salon, a follow-up exhibition at La Vie Moderne yielded only one significant sale, and his contributions to a group show in Le Havre in late summer met with disapproval from conservative local collectors.
Although Monet remained fully committed to Impressionist methods and aims, it was clear that he needed an opportunity to recharge. He had come of age as an artist in the late 1860s by painting the Normandy coast, and his return to this familiar and time-honored landscape in 1880 was at once a liberation from his present circumstances and an immersion in the past. Arriving at Les Petites-Dalles in early autumn, after the majority of seasonal vacationers had returned home, Monet was able to work in solitude, without distraction or unwanted social attention, just as he had at the beginning of his career.
To paint the present canvas, Monet set up his easel right at the ocean’s edge, gazing out over the roiling surf, which functioned as a visual carrier of his strong emotions. The sky is a brilliant blue punctuated with cumulus clouds, suggesting that Monet was painting the day after a storm, when the skies were bright but the ocean continued to churn. The water stretches out to either side of the canvas with no boats or other demarcating forms, as though the scene were endlessly expanding. The physicality of Monet’s touch allows one to sense the artist’s presence in the picture and thus that of an individual standing on the site as a surrogate for the viewer. “It is a view we have all seen,” Richard Thomson has written, “the whole of one’s field of vision filled with nothing but sea and sky, and it evokes in us feelings of loneliness and insignificance in the face of nature’s immensity” (Monet: The Seine and the Sea, exh. cat., National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 102).
This was an effect that Courbet, whose reverence for the sea rivaled Monet’s own, had made famous in his views of the storm-swept Normandy beaches, and Monet surely had these in mind when he selected the vantage point for La Vague. Monet’s canvas, however, is more insistently referential to the act of painting, and its reliance on the expressive power of color is much stronger. Row after row of loose, curving strokes of pigment tumble toward us, the repetitive movement of the brushstrokes evoking the continuous breaking of the waves. Only a narrow band of horizontal strokes in the distance indicates the vast recession of the sea. The horizon line divides the composition into two nearly equal halves, the oblique banks of cumulus clouds mirroring the frothy caps of the breakers. “We can easily follow the movement of the artist’s hand and wrist as he attempted to find a painterly equivalent for the tumult of the waves,” John Leighton has written. “The subject, it seems, has become entirely absorbed into its manner of representation” (Manet and the Sea, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2003, p. 206).
Monet completed four paintings during his cathartic fortnight at Les Petites-Dalles. In addition to the present canvas, he painted a second “pure” marine under stormier skies and two views of the limestone cliffs flanking the village beach (Wildenstein, nos. 621-624). In February 1881, the artist received a much-needed windfall in the form of a visit from his old dealer Durand-Ruel, who had recently negotiated backing from the Union Générale bank and found himself with funds to spend after a lean five years. Durand-Ruel purchased fifteen recent canvases from Monet for a total of 4500 francs, which allowed the artist to return to Normandy the very next month, setting up this time at the port of Fécamp. Among the twenty canvases that he painted during this sojourn, there are three that look out directly over the agitated sea, reprising La Vague in theme, composition, and touch (Wildenstein, nos. 661-663; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa).
During the ensuing years, Monet’s effort to capture the elemental confrontation between land, sea, and sky on the Normandy coast would play a key role in cementing his commercial success and establishing his mature artistic identity. Colorful accounts of his bravura in the face of nature—clambering over wet rocks, lashing down his easel against the wind, on one occasion nearly drowning in the surf—became part of his creative persona. As an old man in 1917, long after he had retreated to the calm shores of his lily-pond, he took one final trip to Normandy, not to paint but simply to gaze at the sea. “I saw and dreamed about so many memories, so much toil,” he recounted. “It’s done me good, and I’ll get back to work with renewed zeal” (quoted in ibid., p. 201).