Coucher de soleil à Lavacourt recalls Monet's celebrated painting Impression, soleil levant (Wildenstein no. 263) of 1873 from which the Impressionist movement took its name (fig. 1). It is painted in the same broad, sketchy manner and depicts the same subject: the sun reflecting on the cool, gently flowing water.
Vétheuil is situated on the Seine between Paris and Rouen. "A large island lies mid-stream between the town and the island of Lavacourt on the southern bank. In Monet's time the two were linked by ferry. Behind Vétheuil chalk hills rise steeply, cut in places into cliffs, orchards and gardens line the river bank behind Lavacourt, the land is flat, a watery alluvial plain that stretches away as far as the eye can see" (R. Gordon and A. Forge, Monet, New York, 1983, p. 91). Lavacourt was never more than a small row of houses facing Vétheuil across the river. The Seine bends so sharply at this point in its course that the hamlet is practically an island surrounded by the river on three sides, only connected to the land by a narrow isthmus. Monet was attracted by the views of the surrounding countryside and its watery reflections which offered him varied and dramatic light effects throughout the year.
The river dominates the composition, reflecting the luminous colors of the land and sky. Andrew Forge has written:
Colour which he now learned to use with an unprecedented purity offers an infinitely subtle and flexible alternative to the traditional massings of light and shade. Systems of interlocking blues and oranges, for example, of lilacs and lemons will carry the eye across the whole surface of the canvas and these colour structures, each marvellously turned to the particulars of light will be augmented by a vast range of accents of comma, slash, dot, flake, each attuned economically to its object that the eye is continually at work in its reading" (A. Forge, Claude Monet, exh. cat., New York, 1976).
This work is closely related to another painting of 1881, Soleil couchant sur la Seine, effet d'hiver (W. 576; Petit Palais, Paris). Comparison between the two makes it clear that Monet sought to render only the skeletal form of the landscape in the present painting. This suggestive manner of creating form with light brushstrokes minimizes solidity and spatial depth and instead emphasizes the atmospheric effects, which are quintessentially Impressionist.
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant, 1873. Musée Marmottan, Paris.