Painted in 1882, Les sapins à Varengeville is a serene and transient landscape by Claude Monet that was created during one of the most sustained pictorial campaigns that he had, up until this point, embarked upon. It was during the first half of the 1880s that Monet created a dazzling array of landscapes showing the coast in Normandy, his childhood home. Buoyed by newfound financial success following the sale of some of his paintings to his formerly intermittent dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, Monet turned to the landscape in Normandy with a new sense of liberty and purpose that was increased by the gradual change in his domestic situation with his lover Alice Hoschedé. Les sapins à Varengeville dates from this crucial moment in Monet's life and career, perfectly demonstrating the skills he had honed as the quintessential Impressionist landscapist and showing the increasing restraint, the removal of the superfluous, that came during this period to characterise his paintings, giving them their clear, absorbing beauty. It is a testimony to the success of this painting that within Monet's own lifetime, it formed a part of a series of historic collections as well as passing through the hands of many of the most noteworthy dealers of the Twentieth Century.
Although Monet had grown up in Normandy, it was only in February 1882, while staying in Dieppe, that he discovered Pourville and its neighbouring Varengeville, only a few miles away. Always a lover of the sea, Monet was enchanted by the tiny fishing village of Pourville, which had the added attraction of being much cheaper, especially off-season, than Dieppe, and so he moved there and began to explore the surrounding countryside and views. This resulted in a series of celebrated landscapes showing Varengeville in particular, sometimes focussing on its Napoleonic customs house, sometimes on the gorge cutting its way down to the sea, and sometimes on other views, usually leading to the sea. Several paintings showing these views are now in museum collections around the world, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum.
Like Les sapins à Varengeville, many of these landscapes featured a bold, new pared-back aesthetic, allowing the landscape to breathe in a new way. In this picture, the artist's clear focus on trees and sea has a formal quality that allows a contemplation of the serenity of this light-dappled view. The trees themselves provide an almost musical visual rhythm as they progress across the canvas, screening some of the rich blue of the sea. Interestingly, Monet has also removed any sign of humanity, of people or habitations, from this picture, relating it in some way to those seascapes he painted on the beach of Pourville which showed only the water and the sky. Les sapins à Varengeville breathes with the sensation of the outdoors, the artist perfectly translating the atmosphere and view from life, painting in front of the motif, demonstrating the effectiveness of the pleinairisme that had become such a hallmark of the Impressionist landscape, and of Monet's in particular.
Monet's discovery of Pourville and Varengeville reinvigorated the artist, as did the change in his domestic circumstances, and so later in 1882, he returned there briefly in order to seek lodgings for the summer for himself and his family, eventually settling upon the Villa Juliette, reporting back to Alice that, 'The country is wonderful at the moment and I can't wait to get back' (Monet, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet or The Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 1999, p. 180). Thus, in the summer, Monet returned with his two children as well as Alice and her five. The couple were living increasingly in the open, despite her marital status as the wife of Monet's former patron Ernest, who had fallen on bad times financially and was more and more estranged-- it was only ten years later, following the death of Ernest, that Monet and Alice Hoschedé were finally married. And now, Monet, following more sales of pictures to Durand-Ruel, including those from his February trip to Pourville and Varengeville, was better able to support this rambling family group, while Hoschedé himself was still in the financial doldrums.
While Monet appears to have enjoyed the time that he spent with Alice and the family at Pourville, he was in two minds after her departure, writing letters that erratically veered from ecstatic celebrations of the weather and the landscape to horror at the torment that the rain and clouds would bring. His moods reflected the weather, which dictated the conditions for painting; and it is another aspect of this sensibility to the weather that is evident in the deft way in which Monet has captured the sense of sun and warmth in Les sapins à Varengeville.
The history of the ownership of this painting itself reflects the history of Monet's life and also the reception of his work. It was initially bought by Durand-Ruel, under the present mistaken title Les sapins à Varengeville which, despite the fact that it shows pines and not fir trees, has been retained through the years. It then entered the celebrated collection of Charles Leroux which, when it was sold in February 1888, gained some press interest and represented a key moment in Monet's own fortunes. For the prices that would be achieved in that sale would, the artist realised, dictate his own prices, and therefore his livelihood. At that particular point, Monet was in dire straits. Les sapins à Varengeville was offered at the Leroux sale alongside seven other works by the artist. In the end, some of the prices were fairly substantial and bolstered Monet's market, albeit through the purchases of his old friends and supporters.
Les sapins à Varengeville subsequently entered the collection of Maurice Leclanché, one of the early supporters of Edouard Manet and the owner of a string of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist masterpieces. Artist and collector alike were united in their mutual admiration for Manet, and indeed Leclanché was one of the more generous subscribers to the fund that Monet orchestrated in order to be able to purchase Olympia and donate it to the French State, a project that began in 1889 and that came to fruition the following year. Leclanché's collection included pictures by a range of artists that reads like a 'Who's Who' of the late Nineteenth Century, from Manet and Monet to Cassatt, Pissarro, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac and Renoir; one of the other paintings by Monet which he owned, Sentier dans les coquelicots, île Saint-Martin, painted in 1880, is now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
The picture was later owned by the widow of Charles H. Senff, a sugar magnate who was related to the Havemeyer family. Many of the works that he owned later entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum through his niece and nephew, his beneficiaries. On his death in 1911, Senff's estate was valued at the then hugely formidable sum of just under $9,000,000; his wife went on to live in great style, indulging both in her love of art and of philanthropy, continuing her late husband's example.