La côte de Varengeville dates from 1882, a year in which Claude Monet made two campaigns to the Norman coast near his own home, Le Havre. These two trips, the first made alone and the second with his and Alice Hoschedé’s families, resulted in a series of exquisite landscapes, many of which are now in prestigious museum collections throughout the world. La côte de Varengeville itself has a highly distinguished early provenance: already, by the beginning of the Twentieth Century, it had been owned successively by two important American collectors, Catholina Lambert and Henry Lee Higginson; it was shown, only nine years after completion, in Boston’s prominent J. Eastman Chase gallery.
Monet had visited the coast of Normandy in the two years prior; indeed, it would become a key inspiration during the 1880s. In 1881, he had created a group of landscapes at Fécamp, which had met with immediate success in terms of sales; in 1883, the year after La côte de Varengeville was painted, he would visit Etretat, creating some of his most iconic views. His 1882 campaigns in Normandy are often seen as pivotal moments of release, as Monet began to create brighter, more vivid, more joyous landscapes. This is sometimes seen in relation to hiscoming to terms with his bereavement three years earlier, when his wife Camille had died in Vétheuil. By the time he visited Normandy in 1882, he had finally left Vétheuil and had instead set up home with Alice Hoschedé and their respective children in Poissy. This was a tense time in domestic terms: the unmarried couple had looked respectable when they were living in Vétheuil, as Alice appeared to be helping the widowed Monet with his children; however, establishing a household together had led to some disapproval.
It was against this backdrop of tension that Monet travelled to Dieppe in search of motifs to paint; at the same time, the popularity of the Fécamp paintings inspired him to carry on creating his Marines. However, initially on his arrival in Dieppe in 1882, Monet was uninspired by his surroundings. Soon, though, he discovered Varengeville and Pourville. He soon moved from Dieppe to the hotel in the casino in Pourville, which was run by a kindly man from Alsace, Paul Graff, and his wife. Monet was visiting an out-of-the-way resort off season, and so was heartily welcomed by Graff, who would come to feature in one of his portraits. Monet’s enchantment with Pourville was immediately transparent, as is evident from his correspondence with Alice: ‘The countryside is very beautiful and I am very sorry I did not come here earlier instead of wasting my time in Dieppe. One could not be any closer to the sea than I am, on the shingle itself, and the waves beat at the foot of the house’ (Monet, 1882, quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Monet by Himself: Paintings, drawings, pastels, letters, London, 1989, p. 100).
In part due to the hues of the vegetation and in part because of the view, La côte de Varengeville is placed, within the chronology of the catalogue raisonné of Monet’s works, in the first trip that he made to this part of the Norman coast. The view in this picture is the Gorge des Moutiers, near the church of Varengeville which Monet had celebrated in an early example of his series paintings, a group of four works, three of which are in museum collections. During his second trip to Pourville, when he returned with Alice and their children, renting the Villa Juliette, Monet would paint the church from below, looking up at the building as it crested the cliffs. Likewise, he would show the opening of the gorge upon the beach, seen from below; he may well have used it to gain access to the waterfront.
The composition of La côte de Varengeville is dramatic, with its plunging perspective. This allows Monet to fill a central swathe of the canvas with a view of the lush, lapis-flecked sea itself, under the pale blue sky. It adds a great sense of dynamism to the picture, revealing a technique which he would also use in his celebrated views of the nearby customs house at Le Petit Ailly, where the landscape plummeted in a V-shape to the side of the building, introducing a bold sliver of sea. Monet would explore a number of variations of this V-shaped inclination in his works, for instance in the views of the Chemin de la Cavée, Pourville such as the one in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston or Sur la falaise à Pourville in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. This perspective allows Monet the chance to explore a number of different, contrasting effects, for instance the foliage, the water and the sky in La côte de Varengeville. The dark green trees form a chain meandering across the canvas, echoing musical notations, culminating in two larger examples which recall some of the paintings of the church at Varengeville. Indeed, the trees serve as a framing device, recalling some of the classical landscapes of Old Masters such as Claude Lorrain, showing an increasing focus on the rigours of composition itself, a technique which some might have considered at odds with the early Impressionist ethos.
That Impressionist ethos was already being adapted by Monet himself. While Monet would still paint a great deal before his motif, he would sometimes complete works elsewhere. Thus, when Monet sent La côte de Varengeville to Durand-Ruel from his new home in Giverny in November the following year, he explained that the dealer should be careful, as the paint on some of the pictures was still wet. While this may not have specifically included La côte de Varengeville, it nonetheless reveals that the studio, that work away from the motif, was crucial to Monet’s process. Certainly, looking at the lush finish of La côte de Varengeville, this is understandable.
La côte de Varengeville was in the collection of the Yorkshire-born entrepreneur Catholina Lambert, who had travelled to the United States as a young man in order to seek out opportunity. He found it: within a number of years, he had been involved in mills, creating textiles. Lambert thrived, and began to collect. Indeed, within a short amount of time, his collection had grown to the extent that he had to build a new home of far greater dimensions, the ‘Belle Vista’ (named after his wife Isabelle) in order to house it; the building, a wing of which remains, overlooks Paterson, New Jersey, where he had made his home. Much of Lambert’s collection was sold during the First World War in 1916, when rock-bottom prices were achieved for a number of works including a Rembrandt. However, La côte de Varengeville had left his collection two decades earlier, being owned for a number of years by Henry Lee Higginson. Known as ‘Major Higginson’, he was a prominent member of Boston society, a successful businessman and a philanthropist. He was wounded in the Civil War, in which he had fought on the side of the Union Army; he apparently left the military with the rank of Colonel but was referred to as ‘Major Higginson’ to avoid confusion with his relative, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a very prominent supporter of Abolition. Henry Lee Higginson acquired an impressive collection that included another painting by Monet from the same campaign, Falaises près de Dieppe, now in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Philadelphia. Higginson, who was a benefactor of many causes and whose portrait was painted by John Singer Sargent, is best remembered for the efforts he made to found the Boston Symphony Orchestra.