Painted in 1882, Allée de sapins a Varengeville is a striking canvas which belongs to a period in Monet's oeuvre between 1881 and 1886, when the artist made frequent visits to paint along the Normandy coast. It was a period which followed profound changes in Monet's family life, but also saw a sustained and increased period of productivity inspired by Monet's rediscovery of the beauty of the coast around the towns of Fécamp, Pourville, Varengeville and Etrétat.
Monet was furthermore encouraged to paint here by the significant purchases of his marines by the Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in the early 1880s, who purchased Allé de sapins à Varengeville from the artist in 1882. The exploration of new motifs along the coast coincided with the region's increased popularity as a resort. Towns like Pourville, where Monet was to base himself in the summer months of 1882, were becoming popular with bourgeois vacationers of the time.
In 1879 Monet's life had changed dramatically. Monet's wife Camille died following a prolonged illness. Before Camille Monet's death the Monet family had been sharing a house with Alice and Ernest Hoschedé and their children. Ernest Hoschedé had been one of the earliest collectors of the Impressionists; however, his failing business resulted in a reversal in his financial affairs. Hoschedé increasingly absented himself from Vétheuil and it soon became apparent that Monet and Alice were living together as though married, merging their two families. At the end of 1881 they moved to Poissy, eighteen miles from Paris, and then in 1883 to their final home in Giverny. They married in 1892, after Hoschedé's death.
In the summer months of 1882 Monet moved his extended family into a villa called Villa Juliette in Pourville. Whilst the Normandy coast offered artists opportunities for painting, it was also becoming a popular place to vacation for the bourgeoisie. Pourville offered both motifs for the artist and seaside distractions for Monet's family, 'Pourville was only two and half miles west of Dieppe, where Monet had first gone in February but which he had found inappropriate for painting, the hotel being too expensive, the café, too full of 'provincial types', and the cliffs, less beautiful than those of Fécamp. The artist found Pourville much more to his liking. It was an unpretentious small port, with only one casino-hotel-restaurant' (R.L. Herbert, Monet on the Normandy Coast: Tourism and Painting, 1867-1886, New Haven and London, 1994, p. 44). Monet's extended family joined others in summer pursuits: 'The children watched the fisherman at work and one child was allowed to accompany the artist when he went reconnoitering in the swimming instructor's boat' (ibid). Some of Monet's pictures were peopled with figures, usually vacationers, on occasion posed by Alice Hoschedé or one of her older daughters Blanche, others offer the natural beauty of the landscape up to the viewer alone, as in Allée de sapins a Varengeville.
During the 1870s Monet had been based in Argenteuil, Paris and Vétheuil and the artist had seldom painted the coast. However, a trip to Les Petites Dalles, about twenty-four miles beyond Etrétat, for two or three weeks in September 1880 inspired renewed interest in the motifs offered by the channel coast. Monet was furthermore encouraged to return to the Normandy coast six months later by Paul Durand-Ruel's purchase of sixteen picture's, including two of Les Petites Dalles. Paul Durand Ruel had periodically bought and sold Monets since 1871 but now, in addition to this large purchase, he promised regular acquisitions, so Monet could turn to seascapes with optimism about future sales. This campaign began in earnest in 1882 with a seven week trip in February 1882 followed by a return in the summer when the artist based himself in Pourville, and began a sustained period of painting the beaches and clifftops of the dramatic coastline. A little westward from Pourville was the smaller village of Varengeville, where the present work was painted, and whose cliffs are continuous with Pourville's. 'Varengeville did not yet have the popularity it acquired after World War I, but its clifftop views, touted by guidebooks, had already entered the annals of tourism. It was well known to artists: Eugène Isabey had frequently worked there before 1873' (ibid., p. 56).
Allée de sapins a Varengeville depicts a sunlight path, flanked on either side by tall pine trees, leading down towards the sea at Varengeville. Monet uses a rich palette, infused with the luminosity of a summer's day to capture the natural beauty of the sunlit path. A feathery brushstroke describes the pines, which offer occasional pools of shade, and frame the blue sea and sky beyond. The contrasting shadows serve to intensify the light which tumbles down across the canvas, catching the tips of the pines trees painted with cursive strokes of the brush, to intensely pool along the path. The alley of trees creates depth and perspective to the composition; especially the tall pine in almost complete shadow on the left. Pine trees were similarly used in the foreground of Église de Varengeville, à contre-jour (W.727; Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham), to push back the hillside and sky. 'The positioning of trees on one side of the foreground or in the mid-distance of a landscape is a familiar device, one associated with Claude Lorrain, the great seventeenth-century painter' (ibid., p. 57). Monet's Normandy paintings proved popular with Paul Durand-Ruel, who was at this time holidaying in near by Dieppe, as Monet received over 31,000 francs from the dealer by the close 1882. Allée de sapins à Varengeville was amongst the works Paul Durand-Ruel bought that year.
Allée de sapins à Varengeville has a distinguished provenance and early exhibition history. From Paul Durand-Ruel's Paris gallery the painting entered the collection of Catholina Lambert, in New Jersey, who, by the close of the 19th century, had assembled one of the finest private collections in America, boasting works from Botticelli to Monet. To house the collection Catholina built the mansion 'Belle Vista' in 1892, now known as Lambert Castle. Although we do not know the exact date the work left the Lambert collection, Catholina was a lender to the Lotus Club exhibition in New York in 1910, which included this painting, although the work may equally have been lent by Durand-Ruel. Monet, 'the discoverer of sunlight', received favourable praise by the New York Times, who reviewed the Lotus Club exhibition on 16 December 1910 and highlighted the monumentality and luminosity of Monets paintings.
Later in the 20th century, Allée de sapins à Varengeville was acquired by the philanthropists Mr and Mrs Brayton Wilbur of San Francisco, possibly in the 1950s from Gertrude Stein's family in Palo Alto, and it is from the estate of the late Matilda B. Wilbur, that the painting is now offered, for the first time on the art market for over sixty years. Mr Brayton Wilbur Sr., was one of the founding members of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and President of the Board from 1947-1953. Matilda Baker Wilbur, who survived her husband by some 44 years to live to 106, lived a fascinating life that spanned a century; she once remarked 'To go from horse-drawn carriages to jet planes is to have experienced great changes'. Throughout her life she and her husband were passionate about music, education, art and travelling and assembled a significant art collection. The Wilburs also founded the Brayton Wilbur Scholarship Fund for Hispanic Students, which reflected Matilda Wilbur's life long interest in Spanish colonial history.