‘You know my passion for the sea. I’m mad about it’ -Monet (quoted in P. Hayes Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven & London, 1995, p. 113).
Depicting a picturesque corner of the windswept, verdant Normandy coast on a bright summer’s day, Coup de vent (‘Gust of wind’) was painted in 1881, a time of transition in Claude Monet’s art as he began increasingly to dedicate himself to pure landscape painting. Painted during one of the first of many sojourns in the Normandy coast, Coup de vent is one of a small group of four works that the artist painted at the end of the summer of this year, the verdant landscape and clear blue sky immediately conjuring the effects of this blustery mid-summer’s day. Without a trace of human presence, the present work embodies Monet’s new interest in the elemental forces of nature, the true protagonist of the scene being, as the title states, a gust of wind. With its bold composition, deep perspective, expansive plane of sky, and a delicate, exquisitely rendered range of sun-dappled light and shadow, this work introduces the themes and preoccupations that would come to define Monet’s work of this seminal decade. Of these four paintings, Coup de vent is the only one to remain in private hands; the remaining three now residing in museum collections across Europe and the USA. Immersed in the dramatic coastline of Normandy, the rolling hills, soaring cliffs and expansive seascapes that he had known since his childhood, Monet was reinvigorated, embarking on a new mode of painting that would come to define the second half of his career. As Richard Thomson has written, ‘Over the next half decade, his work on the Channel coast amounted to much more than a rediscovery of Normandy; it was a reinvention of Monet as an artist’. He continues, ‘[it was during this time that] Monet’s experiences painting on the Normandy coast had encouraged him to see forms more simply, distinctly diminished the role of the modern in his iconography, stimulated the repetition of motifs, promoted competition with earlier masters of landscape, and concentrated his attention on the fascinating combination of the short durée of the effet and the longue durée of geological forms’ (R. Thomson, ‘Normandy in the 1880s’, in Claude Monet, 1840-1926, exh. cat., Paris, 2010-2011, pp. 172, 177-178).
The beginning of the 1880s saw the artist’s life and art take a new direction. After the triumphant success of his Gare Saint-Lazare series of 1877, Monet left behind the depiction of the city and the effects of modernity, moving from the increasingly populated suburb of Argenteuil, to the rural village of Vétheuil. After various personal and professional setbacks, the beginning of the new decade saw the artist return to painting with a new, energetic zeal. When, in September of 1880, he travelled to Les Petites-Dalles on the Normandy coast with his brother Léon, he found himself reinvigorated and newly inspired. This trip would turn out to be seminal. Though he had grown up on the coast, around Le Havre and Sainte-Adresse, and had spent time travelling to these coastal towns in the 1860s and early 1870s, Monet had not visited the sea for seven years prior to this excursion, preferring instead to paint Argenteuil and rural vistas of the Île de France. Both a liberation and a nostalgic return to his youth, this trip saw Monet reacquaint himself with this area. Confronted by nature in its purest, most elemental form, he was immediately enamoured with the roiling seas, soaring cliff faces and expansive skies of the Normandy coast, revelling in the stark simplicity, rousing grandeur, and often, the pictorial drama, of these vistas where sky, sea and land meet in striking harmony. From this time onwards, Monet would constantly return to this corner of northern France, revelling in the artistic inspiration he found there.
Buoyed by the success with which his coastal landscapes from this trip were met – in February 1881, the leading Impressionist dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel had bought sixteen paintings from the artist his largest purchase to date – in the spring of this year Monet returned to the coast, this time choosing Fécamp in which to base himself. Originally scheduled to stay for three weeks, the artist was so happy with his progress that he decided to extend his stay, explaining to Durand-Ruel, ‘I have worked a lot and put my time to good use, but I would like to continue some studies that I have started…’ (Letter 212, in D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Biographie et catalogue raisonné, volume 1, Lausanne & Paris, 1974, p. 442).
In the late summer, Monet eagerly returned once again to the Normandy coast, this time staying in or around the fashionable beach resort Trouville. Situated on the estuary of the Seine, Trouville was a place that held an important resonance for the artist. In the summer of 1870, he and his wife Camille and their young son Jean, had stayed there until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. While there, Monet captured, in his nascent Impressionist style, the beach and sea front, depicting the fashionable Parisian holidaymakers who promenaded along this picturesque panorama.
Returning again just over a decade later, the artist now had starkly different pictorial concerns. He chose not to portray the town itself, its architecture, waving tricolours and its glamourous bourgeoisie, but rather ventured inland, immersing himself in the rural, uninhabited countryside that surrounded this picturesque resort. Though this trip was cut short due to inclement weather, ‘every day brings rain’ (Letter 222, in D. Wildenstein, ibid., p. 443), he wrote dejectedly to Durand-Ruel at the beginning of September, it was during this time that Monet painted the present work, and three others (Wildenstein, nos. 686, 687, 689). And though, as this letter attests, he complained bitterly about the bad weather during this stay, he must have had some clear, sunny days to have been able to paint these four clear, blue-skied and in some cases, sun-drenched landscapes. This series of four presents a variety of vistas of the coast, pictured from both sides of the estuary: an expansive vista of the beach at low tide (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid); a seascape that captures a view of Sainte-Adresse, the small town situated just up the coast from Trouville, in the distance (Ordrupgaardsamlingen, Copenhagen); and a work that, like Coup de vent, presents a view of a grassy clifftop, the sea stretching out to meet the horizon in the distance, with a verdant, wind-blown tree serving as the sole protagonist (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
In Coup de vent, Monet has focused entirely on the landscape itself, immersing himself in the depiction of the sun dappled cliff top, the shimmering blue waters of the expansive stretch of sea and the small pool in the foreground, the clear sky and, most importantly, the atmospheric effect of the wind. Any sign of human presence is expunged, with Monet appearing, ‘alone in a place where earth and sky, land and water, the artist and the environment are in perfect accord’ (P. Hayes Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven & London, 1995, p. 101). In this way, the true protagonist of Coup de vent is nature itself. Never before had the artist turned so completely to the depiction of elemental forces, such as, in this case, the wind. Monet has captured this intangible weather effect through his deft and evocative brushwork. With a host of multi-directional strokes, the artist has rendered the verdant green coast top shimmering in the wind, the group of trees leaning to the right, growing into this formation thanks to the endless pummelling of the wind on this coastal outcrop. As is typical of works from this period, the foreground of the picture is rendered with short, staccato brushstrokes that appear as an almost abstract array of colour; strokes of lighter green overlaid and interspersed with rich, jewel-like tones to create the effect of light and shadow. This loose, rapid handling of the verdant landscape contrasts with the smoother strokes that the artist has used to convey the hazy blue sky and the expansive, seemingly endless sea below.
At the time that he painted the present work, Monet had increasingly abandoned the contemporary themes that had dominated his earlier oeuvre. Gone were the scenes of suburban life in Argenteuil and the visions of the modernising metropolis that was Paris at this time. Likewise, in his landscape painting the signs and symbols of modernity that had once occupied his work – houses, factories and figures – were gradually eliminated, replaced instead with unfettered visions of nature. Monet increasingly focused solely on the landscape itself, immersing himself in the depiction of fleeting light effects, varying weather conditions and the ever-changing colours and tones of the natural world. In the present work, Monet has not sought to render a description of the landscape, but has instead distilled the experience of nature and the feeling of being within it on the canvas. It was this practice that would come to define his work of the subsequent decades.
Coup de vent also marks Monet’s growing awareness of his own place within the haloed lineage of French landscape painting. By focusing not on the effects of modernity, but instead on the landscape in its purest, elemental, and unchanging state, Monet created works that, like his great predecessors, Lorrain, Poussin, Corot and Courbet, transcended specifics of place and time to become timeless evocations of the landscape, albeit rendered in his distinctively modern handling. Critics of this period noted this transition in Monet’s work. Théodore Duret wrote in 1880, the year before Monet painted Coup de vent, ‘After Corot, Claude Monet is the artist who has made the most inventive and original contribution to landscape painting. Were we to classify painters according to their degree of novelty and the unexpected contained in their works, Monet’s name would indubitably be included among the masters… We maintain…that in the future Claude Monet will be ranked alongside Rousseau, Corot and Courbet among landscape painters…’ (Duret, quoted in M. Clarke, ‘Monet and Tradition, or How the Past became the Future’, in Monet: The Seine and The Sea, exh. cat., Edinburgh, 2003, p. 45). Yet, crucially, Monet’s landscapes of the 1880s did not mark a return to this French pictorial tradition, but were instead, a modern take on this revered genre. As Richard Thomson has written, with the Normandy landscapes of the early 1880s, ‘Monet was not…trying to resuscitate an old aesthetic, to which he probably gave no conscious thought. Rather, he instinctively seized on its core principles, discarded its accessories and fused them with his own practices to create an art of physical power and modern ambition, a new sublime that asserted his sensations, his originality. This was not necessarily a deliberate strategy, but an emotive artistic response to this stunning coastal landscape’ (R. Thomson, ‘Looking to Paint: Monet 1878-1883’, in Monet: The Seine and The Sea, exh. cat., Edinburgh, 2003, p. 29).
From the time that he painted Coup de vent onwards, regular travel became an essential part of Monet’s artistic practice, bringing him new inspiration and new motifs. In February 1882, he returned to the coast again, this time staying in Pourville, where he remained for seven weeks. Completely enamoured with this town, he returned in the summer with his family, beginning a routine that would continue for many years to come. Focusing entirely on the dramatic coastline of Normandy, Monet laid the foundations for his iconic work in series that would come to the fore in the following decade. In this way, Coup de vent stands at the very beginning of this time of transition. Encapsulating the features that have come to define not only Monet’s work, but Impressionism as a whole, this painting demonstrates how Monet created a new mode of landscape painting. And, while Monet’s art holds a prominent position within the haloed lineage of great 19th Century French landscape painting, a work such as Coup de vent also demonstrates the distinctive style and the radical working practices that would position the artist as one of the most important figures in the development of 20th Century Modernism.
After Monet had reinitiated his relationship with Durand-Ruel in the spring of 1881, with the dealer making his most significant purchase of Monet’s work to date, he had a newfound financial support for his art. From this point onwards, Durand-Ruel frequently bought Monet’s work, selling it to a new range of collectors, which included the burgeoning group of Americans who were becoming increasingly interested in the developments of contemporary art in Paris. Durand-Ruel bought Coup de vent from Monet in 1883, and sold this work a few years later, in 1891, to Harris Whittemore, one of the first of this new group of American collectors who sought to acquire masterpieces of Impressionism. At a time when this movement was regarded with disbelief and incomprehension, its radical style and unconventional, modern subjects inciting shock and dismay in many conservative collectors, the New York based Whittemore, inspired by his father, John Howard Whittemore, a wealthy industrialist who likewise shared a passion for Impressionism, began to acquire works by a range of Impressionist artists, the first of whom was Monet. Together, father and son formed one of the greatest collections of Impressionism in the country, much of which hung in their homes in Naugatuck and Middlebury, Connecticut. Many of the works from their collection now reside in museum collections across the world, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, the Art Institute of Chicago, and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Harris Whittemore had taken an active interest in art from a young age. Having graduated from Andover in Massachusetts, he went to Germany to study for two years in the early 1880s, and, during visits to France he became interested in Impressionism. He bought his first Monet in 1890, marking the beginning of a great passion for the artist’s work. It is possible that back in the United States, he went to the Impressionist exhibition at the National Academy of Design, New York in May 1887, where he could have seen Monet’s Coup de vent, which he later bought from Durand-Ruel in March 1891. From this time on, he acquired some of the greatest of Monet’s work, including two of the iconic ‘Haystacks’ series.
In 1893, Harris Whittemore returned to Paris with his new bride for a long honeymoon. It was on this occasion that Mary Cassatt, the American artist working in Paris, wrote inviting the couple to ‘take a cup of tea with [me] and discuss the art question’. She introduced Whittemore to a range of artists, including Degas and Sisley, examples of which he purchased, and Cassatt would remain a close friend of the family, advising them on paintings and artists, as they continued to acquire Impressionist art.
By 1910, the Whittemore family had acquired an extraordinary collection of Impressionist works. It is even more remarkable to consider their collection in the context of the 1913 Armory Show held in New York, which brought avant-garde painting to the attention of Americans for the first time on a wide scale. By the time of this landmark show, the Whittemores had already been collecting for over twenty years. As the art historian Dr. E. Waldmann wrote of this trailblazing pair of collectors, ‘[their] desire was not so much to have a “collection” as to add to their personal enjoyment by living with pictures which appealed to them as excellent and beautiful’. This accurately describes the attitude of both of John Howard and Harris Whittemore.