The present landscape was painted on the Normandy coast, where Caillebotte spent several weeks each summer beginning in 1880, competing in local regattas. During the mid-nineteenth century, the traditional fishing villages and larger ports along the English Channel had been transformed into seaside resorts catering to Parisian vacationers, replete with lavish hotels, casinos, inns, and villas. By Caillebotte's day, the summer sojourn in Normandy had become an obligatory ritual for prosperous city-dwellers, widely regarded as an extension of bourgeois life in the capital. Society gossip columns described the boardwalk at Trouville, the jewel of the Channel coast, as "the summer boulevard of Paris," while a popular vaudeville song proclaimed, "If Paris only had the sea, it would be a little Trouville" (quoted in R.L. Herbert, Monet on the Normandy Coast: Tourism and Painting, 1867-1886, New Haven, 1994, p. 34). With its towering cliffs and sprawling beaches, the Normandy coast also attracted a significant coterie of painters, including Courbet, Boudin, and Monet. By 1874, the British travel writer Katherine Macquoid could indeed proclaim that the entire region seemed to have "sprung out of the sea at the fiat of artists" (quoted in R.L. Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, New Haven, 1988, p. 270).
The summers that Caillebotte spent in Normandy were extremely fruitful. Between 1880 and 1884, the artist painted no fewer than fifty canvases of the area around Trouville and Honfleur. Unlike Boudin, however, whose well-known views of the Normandy coast emphasized on the fashionable society of urban holiday-makers, Caillebotte was captivated above all by the landscape. Only five of his paintings from Normandy include figures, and just one of these was exhibited during his lifetime (Berhaut no. 158; sold, Christie's, New York, 4 November 2003, lot 15). In the present painting, he depicts an unblemished stretch of the Channel coast, consisting of a rolling expanse of meadow descending gently toward the curving shoreline. In its sense of wind-swept solitude, the canvas is closely related to the landscapes that Caillebotte's close friend Monet was making during the same period at coastal sites such as Pourville, Etretat, and Dieppe.
Caillebotte's paintings from Normandy indeed mark a critical shift of direction for the artist. Starting in 1880, he focused almost exclusively on landscape and seascape, abandoning the large-scale figure paintings and scenes of contemporary urban life that had formed his mainstay during the previous decade. Stylistically, he began to eschew the crisp contours and finished accents of his Paris paintings in favor of a more Impressionist idiom characterized by free and animated handling. In the present canvas, for example, the vigorous brushwork suggests the movement of a gusty wind across the rugged, coastal landscape. At the same time, the composition of Bord de mer retains the boldness and ingenuity that distinguished Caillebotte's work from the 1870s. The pair of trees in the foreground serves as an obvious point of entry into the landscape. Yet the clear demarcation between the foreground zone, with its deep, green shadows, and the expanse of pale, golden terrain beyond acts as a compositional barrier. Rather than proceeding more deeply into the scene, the viewer remains on the periphery, looking through the screen of trees toward the distant coastline. The resulting sense of separation recalls Caillebotte's celebrated paintings of Paris seen from a window or a balcony, with the pair of trees itself forming a stand-in for the fashionably dressed inhabitants of the earlier works (e.g. Berhaut no. 149; sold Christie's, New York, 8 May 2000, lot 8).