For three decades beginning in the early 1880s, Monet was an indefatigable traveler, seeking out new pictorial motifs in Normandy, Rouen, London, Venice, Holland, and Norway. The present painting was executed during one of the earliest of these exploratory sojourns, a three-month voyage to the Riviera that Monet undertook in 1884. For most of this trip, he stayed at Bordighera, a small fishing village on the northwest coast of Italy. The exotic and sun-drenched landscape there proved a source of profound artistic inspiration for Monet. He executed thirty-five paintings between January 18th and April 6th, an average of one every two days. Joachim Pissarro has described the canvases from Bordighera, including Strada romana à Bordighera, as "some of the most powerful, resonant, and innovative painting Monet had ever produced--work that went well beyond Impressionism" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Fort Worth, 1997, p. 19). He has also observed:
"Monet's decision to paint by the Mediterranean in 1884 was bound to an inner strategy: his art was a constant search for shatteringly new pictorial motifs. From Bordighera to Venice, Monet sought visual contact with landscapes and views that possessed a sense of strangeness, unfamiliarity, and unpredictable multifariousness. As the artist himself explained, he was searching for a type of nature that would be 'even crazier than his art.' Before the beauty of the Mediterranean coast, Monet saw only new visual elements that he had to dominate. To him, the Mediterranean was anything but a vacation. It was a major challenge, even an obsession, and one fraught with considerable difficulties. In the end, it introduced deep and significant changes into his art" (ibid., p. 15).
The 1884 sojourn marked the second time that Monet had traveled to the Mediterranean. He first went there on a two-week excursion with Renoir in December 1883. Although this brief journey afforded Monet ample artistic inspiration, he had little time to paint and produced only two canvases (Wildenstein, nos. 850-851). As Renoir explained to Paul Durand-Ruel, "We've seen marvelous things. We'll probably bring back nothing or not much, because we've been mostly on the move, but what a trip! One has to stay much longer to do something. We've seen everything, or just about, between Marseilles and Genoa. Everything is superb. Vistas of which you have no idea. This evening the mountains were pink. Saint-Raphaël, Monte Carlo, and Bordighera are virgin stands of pine trees" (quoted in B.E. White, Renoir: His Life, Art, and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 135). In another letter to the dealer, Renoir reported, "We are enchanted by our trip. We judged that it was preferable to study the countryside carefully so that when we come back we will know where to stop" (quoted in B.E. White, Impressionists Side by Side, New York, 1996, p. 103).
Less than three weeks after he and Renoir had arrived home from their travels, Monet set off again on his own for an extended campaign in the South. The two painters seem to have discussed returning to the region together, but Monet decided at the last minute to travel alone. Before he departed in January 1884, he wrote to Durand-Ruel, "I beg you to mention this trip to nobody. It isn't so much that I want to keep it a mystery. It's just that I want to do it on my own. As fun as it was to play the tourist with Renoir, it would be a real hindrance to my work to take this trip with somebody else. I have always worked far better in solitude and after my own impressions only" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Fort Worth, 1997, p. 28). Monet chose to lodge at Bordighera because he remembered it as "one of the most beautiful places" that he and Renoir had seen (letter to Durand-Ruel; quoted in ibid., p. 29). Although he originally planned to stay for only a month, he remained at Bordighera for nearly three times that long, much to the dismay of his companion, Alice Hoschedé, who was ensconced at Giverny with Monet's two sons, Jean and Michel, as well as her own six children.
Monet wrote to Alice almost daily from Bordighera, and his letters attest to the feverish pace at which he worked there. Intent on exhausting the pictorial possibilities of the unfamiliar landscape, he painted from dawn until dusk with only a short break for lunch, working on more than a dozen canvases at once. "I am living the life of a dog and never spare my legs," he reported. "I climb up and down, and up again. When I want to rest between each study, I explore every little path, as I am always eager to see something new" (quoted in ibid., p. 31). He was smitten with the beauty of the region and the unique quality of the light, but also frustrated by the difficulty of capturing these effects. Shortly before his departure, he wrote to Durand-Ruel, "Shall we ever be able to feel contented before nature, above all in this place? When surrounded with such dazzling light, one finds one's palette rather poor. Here art would need tones of gold and diamonds. In the end, I did all I could. Maybe, once all this hangs at home, it will recall for me what I saw" (quoted in ibid., p. 38).
Monet's work from Bordighera is noteworthy for several small series of paintings that depict the same site, painted from a very similar vantage point but under slightly different conditions of weather or light. These sequences anticipate the full-fledged serial practice that would become Monet's hallmark, beginning with the Haystacks of 1890. The present work is one of three paintings that depict the Strada Romana, one of the main streets in Bordighera, looking west toward the Alps (Wildenstein, nos. 855-857; fig. 1). The Strada (now known as the Via) Romana links the old city with the newer districts to the west, following the line of the hills that overlook Bordighera. To the left of the present canvas is the Villa Casa Rossa, and to the right is the Villa Sant'Ampelio. The other two paintings of the Strada Romana depict the same two buildings, along with the Villa Etelinda in the right foreground. The home of Baron Bischoffsheim, a French banker and philanthropist with a particular interest in science and astronomy, the Villa Etelinda was a popular tourist attraction in Bordighera and a favorite gathering place for the international intelligentsia. The villa had been built in the early 1880s by Charles Garnier, the designer of the Opéra in Paris and the most celebrated French architect of the Second Empire. Monet also rendered the view from the garden of the Villa Etelinda (Wildenstein, no. 857a) and depicted its distinctive campanile at the center of a panorama over the Città Alta of Bordighera (Wildenstein, no. 854; fig. 3).
Two of the three canvases depicting the villas lining the Strada Romana --the present example and the version in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (Wildenstein, no. 856; fig. 1)--were painted en plein air in Bordighera. The third (Wildenstein, no. 857) is a near replica of the Santa Barbara painting, executed as a gift for Berthe Morisot once Monet had returned home to Giverny. The present painting shows the Villa Casa Rossa and the Villa Sant'Ampelio at a slightly greater distance than the other two canvases, nestled inconspicuously among palm and agave trees. The landscape is also the most unified and harmonious in this version, while in the painting for Morisot, the chromatic effects are boldly intensified. Notably, all three canvases feature the same distinctive cropping, which leaves only a corner of the celebrated villa visible. Monet would employ the same compositional strategy repeatedly during his trip to Venice in 1908 (fig. 2), de-emphasizing the architectural and historical importance of the motifs that he chose to depict and heightening instead their purely visual effect.
Monet's emphasis on the luxuriant vegetation surrounding the villas on the Strada Romana is paralleled in numerous other landscapes that Monet made at Bordighera. In two distant views of the town, for instance, the entire foreground is subsumed in a dense tangle of exotic shrubs and trees, blocking all apparent access to the village (Wildenstein, nos. 853-854; fig. 3), and in a pair of paintings depicting the Moreno Garden, the abundant palms dwarf even the turret of the town church (Wildenstein, nos. 865-866; fig. 4). Although the tropical foliage of the Côte d'Azur offered Monet a myriad of visual stimuli, it also brought him untold frustration. As he wrote to Alice, painting in Bordighera "is extremely difficult to do and it is very time-consuming, mostly because the large self-contained motifs are rare. It is too thick with dense foliage, and all you can find are motifs with lots of detail, jumbles terribly difficult to paint, and I, in contrast, am the man of isolated trees and large spaces" (quoted in ibid., p. 36).
Notwithstanding such struggles, the paintings that Monet brought back from Bordighera proved immensely successful. Durand-Ruel immediately bought twenty-one of them, including the present canvas, for the impressive sum of 18,200 francs. Paul Tucker has noted, "Despite Monet's initial fears, these paintings became reaffirming proof of his ability to capture effects that were radically different from what existed in Normandy and the Ile de France. While attesting to his dexterity and the sensitivity of his eye, these pictures also underscored his ability to reinvent himself and demonstrated the flexibility of his Impressionist style. Finally, they proved that daring continued to be rewarded as they sold extremely well" (in Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 120).
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Villas à Bordighera, 1884. Santa Barbara Museum of Art. BARCODE 25249736
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Le Palais Contarini, 1908. Sold, Christie's New York, 30 April 1996, lot 29. BARCODE 26016184
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Bordighera, 1884. Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Los Angeles. BARCODE 25249729
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Jardin à Bordighera, effet du matin, 1884. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. BARCODE 25249729