“It was a joy for me to see the sea today in all its fury,” Monet wrote to his future wife Alice in September 1886. “It was like a drug, and I was so carried away that I was devastated to see the weather calm down so quickly” (quoted in V. Russell, Monet’s Landscapes, London, 2000, p. 68). The artist had recently arrived on Belle-Île, a rocky, storm-swept island off the coast of Brittany, which boasted the wildest terrain and most hostile climate that he had encountered in more than two decades of painting. Undeterred, he hired an ex-lobsterman as a porter, who fashioned a waterproof slicker to protect him from torrential rains and lashed down his easel and canvases each day against overpowering winds. Originally intending to stay only a fortnight, he extended his trip until late November and brought back to Giverny some three dozen views of La Mer Terrible, a dramatic stretch of coastline consisting of a sheered-off mass of volcanic rock that drops precipitously to the swirling sea. “It’s well-named,” he told Alice. “Not a tree for ten kilometers, some rocks and wonderful grottoes; it’s sinister, diabolical, but superb” (quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet, Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 129).
Monet’s trip to Belle-Île came as Impressionism was facing its greatest challenge to date. At the eighth Impressionist exhibition in May-June 1886, Seurat had stunned the art world by exhibiting the monumental Dimanche à la Grande Jatte, a veritable manifesto of his pioneering Neo-Impressionist technique. With its emphasis on structure and science, the canvas represented a direct assault on the essential premises of Impressionism and heralded the arrival of a new avant-garde idiom. Unlike Pissarro, who had been won over to Neo-Impressionism the previous year, and Renoir, who had been working since 1881 in a classicizing vein, Monet remained a dedicated proponent of charter Impressionism, and he took up Seurat’s challenge with aplomb. “In 1886, he must have realized that he was truly on his own,” Paul Tucker has written, “and that if Impressionism was going to continue to be a viable style equal to the likes of Seurat’s pseudo-scientific method, it was up to him to prove it” (ibid., p. 127).
In the summer of 1886, Monet produced his first large-scale figure paintings in more than a decade, two portraits of a woman with a parasol en plein air. With their painterly bravura, these imposing canvases represent a strictly Impressionist alternative to the impersonal, systematic touch of Seurat’s Grande Jatte (Wildenstein, nos. 1076-1077). Monet then painted his first self-portrait ever, a haunting, deeply introspective painting that bears testament to the weightiness of his position in 1886 (Wildenstein, no. 1078). Finally, the paint on these canvases barely dry, he set off for Belle-Île, the most dramatic and challenging of all the sites that he would paint over the course of the 1880s. With this trip, Tucker has proposed, “Monet was out to prove his worth as the foremost exponent of modernism and...to prove Impressionism’s superior capacity to exploit color, describe particular climatic conditions, use paint in novel ways, and reveal fundamental truths” (Monet in the ’90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, pp. 23 and 25).
The first motifs to capture Monet’s attention following his arrival at Belle-Île were a group of fantastic rock formations at Port-Coton, a harbor not far from his lodgings in the tiny village of Kervilahouen. He painted six canvases that depict a cluster of tall, pointed boulders emerging from the sea there (the Needles or Pyramids of Port-Coton), and another three–the present painting among them–that focus on a craggy, scarred section of cliff said to resemble a lion (Wildenstein, nos. 1084-1092). “All alone, standing on its forelegs, head bent toward the ground, the hindquarters just emerging from the waters, stands this granite lion,” wrote Gustave Geffroy, who by chance was on Belle-Île at the same time as Monet and subsequently became one of his staunchest supporters. “A huge greenish lion sculpted by time, covered with the patina of the sea, enduring the assault of the waves and dripping under the spray of the breakers” (quoted in D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, p. 413).
Although Monet’s three views of the Rocher du Lion are extremely close in composition, they depict the rough-hewn rock formations under different weather conditions–squalling and wind-swept in the present painting, less turbulent in the other versions. The trip to Belle-Île marked the first time that Monet had restricted his compositional options so sharply, anticipating the serial practice that would become his hallmark in the next decade. These limitations forced the artist to be more precise than ever in his description of natural phenomena–the tumultuous motion of the sea, the play of light across the choppy water, the shadows and reflections of the jagged rocks–and thus formed part of his strategy to showcase the power and subtlety of Impressionism. “I well realize that in order to really paint the sea,” he explained to Alice, “one must view it every day, at every time of day and in the same place in order to get to know its life at that particular place; so I am redoing the same motifs as many as four or even six times” (quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., 1989, p. 31).
Following his return to Giverny in November 1886, Monet spent the remainder of the winter completing the views of Belle-Île in his studio. In May 1887, he included eight of them in the Sixth Annual International Exhibition at Galerie Georges Petit, where they met with the most enthusiastic reviews that Monet had ever received. “You have to admire these feverish canvases,” Alfred de Lostalot proclaimed, “for despite their intense color and rough touch, they are so perfectly disciplined that they easily emit a feeling for nature in an impression filled with grandeur” (quoted in ibid., pp. 29-30). Recognizing the particular power of the present scene, Theo van Gogh purchased it in October 1887 for Boussod, Valadon et Cie., where he served as the director of contemporary art; the canvas later belonged to Olivier Sainsère, the Conseiller d’Etat in Paris in the early twentieth century and an important collector of modern paintings.
Fig. A Claude Monet, Auto-Portrait, 1886. Private collection. BARCODE: nyrphxrs
Fig. B Claude Monet, Pyramides de Port-Coton, mer sauvage, 1886. Pushkin Museum, Moscow. BARCODE: nyrphxrt
Fig. C Claude Monet, La côte sauvage, 1886. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. BARCODE: nyrphxru