Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Sur la falaise, au Petit Ailly

Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Sur la falaise, au Petit Ailly
stamped with signature 'Claude Monet' (Lugt 1819b; lower right); stamped again with signature 'Claude Monet' (Lugt 1819b; on the reverse)
oil on canvas
28 x 36 in. (73 x 92 cm.)
Painted at Varengeville, 1896
Estate of the artist.
Michel Monet, Giverny (by descent from the above).
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, London, 31 March 1982, lot 69.
Anon. sale, Galerie Koller, Zurich, 12-13 November 1982, lot 5115A.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Biographie et catalogue raisonné, 1887-1898, Lausanne, 1979, vol. III, p. 195, no. 1428 (illustrated).
D. Wildenstein, Monet, Catalogue Raisonné, Cologne, 1996, vol. III, p. 581, no. 1428 (illustrated in color, p. 582).
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts and London, Royal Academy of Arts, Monet in the '90s, The Series Paintings, May-September 1990, no. 63 (illustrated in color, pl. 77).
Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Die natur der Kunst: Begegnungen mit der Natur vom 19. Jahrhundert bis in die Gegenwart, October 2010-February 2011, p. 68, no. 32 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Sur la falaise, au Petit Ailly is part of a series of more than fifty views that Monet painted in 1896-1897 of the towering cliffs at Pourville, Dieppe, and Varengeville. It was the first time in a full decade that the artist, a native of Le Havre, had worked on the Normandy coast, without doubt his favorite site during the first half of the 1880s. From February to April of both 1896 and 1897, he lodged at Pourville, a small, unpretentious port two miles west of Dieppe where he had spent nearly six months in 1882. Upon his arrival, he wrote to Durand-Ruel, "I set myself up here several days ago, I needed to see the sea again and am enchanted to see once more so many things that I did here fifteen years ago" (quoted in Monet: The Seine and the Sea, 1878-1883, exh. cat., National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 35). The Normandy coast had been the site of some of Monet's earliest experiments with the serial technique that came to dominate his production in the 1890s, and his return to Pourville at this time may represent an effort to re-engage with motifs that he viewed as instrumental to his evolution as an artist. Paul Tucker has explained, "Going back to the Channel allowed Monet to return to his roots, assess his previous work, and test the Northern tradition of landscape painting on which his art had so long and firmly rested" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1990, pp. 205-208).

During his first stay at Pourville in 1882, Monet had roamed all over the high chalk cliffs, employing a local porter to carry his canvases, and had also set up his easel at numerous spots on the beach. In 1896 and 1897, by contrast, he limited himself to just three motifs, all of which he had already explored during his earlier sojourn. He concentrated first on views of the coastline as it swept westward from Pourville (Wildenstein, nos. 1421-1426, 1440-1444) and then moved up onto the top of the bluffs, painting one group of canvases looking east toward Dieppe (Wildenstein, nos. 1430-1434, 1459-1471) and another depicting the Petit Ailly gorge and the small customs house at Varengeville (Wildenstein, nos. 1427-1429, 1445-1458, including the present example). The customs house had been built during the Napoleonic blockade as a lookout post for ships attempting to skirt the siege and was later appropriated by local fishermen. It had been one of Monet's favorite motifs in 1882, and he was eager to re-visit it fifteen years later. In the first letter that he wrote to Alice after settling into his hotel in 1897, he reported, "I arrived without problem and was greeted with beautiful weather. As soon as I had lunch, I went out to see all of my motifs. Nothing has changed... The little house is intact. I have a key to it" (quoted in ibid., pp. 219-222).

Monet's views of the customs house from 1896-1897 form three compositional clusters. In five paintings, including the present one, he looked down steeply on the structure from a higher bluff (Wildenstein, nos. 1428-1429, 1445-1447; for the same vantage point in 1882, see Wildenstein, nos. 742-743). The cabin appears as a small, dark purple mass at the very bottom edge of the canvas, dwarfed by and almost indistinguishable against the towering cliff face. In another subset, Monet positioned his easel across the gorge from the customs house and depicted it tucked protectively into the folds of the undulating landscape, its pitched roof silhouetted against the sea (Wildenstein, nos. 1427, 1448-1454). A final group of paintings portrays the customs house at close range, looking out over the Channel waters (Wildenstein, nos. 1455-1458). Compared with Monet's paintings of the same site from 1882, these later views are characterized by more generalized effects of light, a more muted palette, and softer, less defined contours. Tucker has concluded, "Since these softer effects engender a sense of introspection, it is tempting to see these pictures as being informed as much by memory as by experience, leading us to believe that we are looking at an aging man reflecting on his past as much as observing and transcribing specific lighting conditions" (ibid., p. 222).

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