Dating from October 1864, Le Chantier de petits navires, près de Honfleur is one of Claude Monet's earliest surviving oils. This historic painting reveals that Monet had not only absorbed the lessons from the Barbizon artists and his mentors, Eugène Boudin and Johan Barthold Jongkind, but was developing them into his own highly personal style. With remarkably flexible brushwork and a strong composition of subtle colour harmonies, here Monet superbly conveys the atmosphere of a bracing, overcast day on the Normandy coast.
It was as a painter of seascapes that Monet originally made his name, choosing to debut at the Parisian Salon of 1865 with two large marine paintings. 'There is a first-rank seascape painter in him', declared Emile Zola in 1868 (E. Zola, quoted in G. Tinterow & H. Loyrette, Origins of Impressionism, exh. cat., New York, 1994, p. 208). For Zola, Monet's skill as a painter of seascapes lay in his deep understanding of the coast and of the industry that was sustained by it: '[Monet] loves the water like a mistress, he knows each part of the hull of a boat, he could name the smallest parts of the rigging' (ibid.). This affinity for the coast, illustrated perfectly in Le Chantier de petits navires, près de Honfleur, was instilled in Monet from a young age after he and his family had moved from Paris to Le Havre.
Le Chantier de petits navires, près de Honfleur depicts a boatyard on the shoreline at the foot of the forested hill of the Côte de Grâce, located to the west of Honfleur. As Monet outlined in a letter of October 1864 to his friend and fellow artist Frédéric Bazille, whom he had met whilst studying in the same atelier in Paris, this painting shows the shore just 'below St-Siméon' (letter to E. Bazille, 14 October 1864, reproduced in D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Biographie et catalogue raisonné, vol. I, Lausanne, 1974, no. 11, p. 421). Saint-Siméon was a farm and rural retreat that was a favourite haunt of artists such as Corot, Rousseau, Daubigny and others of the School of 1830, later known as the Barbizon painters, whose rustic scenes of the Forest of Fontainebleau were so important to the genesis of Impressionism. Boudin and Jongkind, who had instilled in Monet the importance of painting landscapes en plein-air and capturing atmospheric effects with fluent strokes of paint, also frequented Saint-Siméon and painted the surrounding countryside. The pivotal role this area played in the development of French landscape painting and the emergence of Impressionism was such that it was often called the 'Barbizon of Normandy'. Indeed, for Maurice Raynal it was the 'true cradle of Impressionism' (see M. Raynal, History Of Modern Painting: From Baudelaire To Bonnard: The Birth Of A New Vision, 2nd ed., London, 1949, p. 5). Thus when Monet undertook a painting excursion with Bazille in the summer of 1864, his decision to travel to Saint-Siméon was significant, confirming his commitment to the precepts of plein-air painting advanced by his mentors.
When Bazille left Saint-Siméon in July 1864, Monet wrote breathlessly to him of the motifs he was encountering there: 'Every day I discover still more beautiful things. It's enough to drive one mad, I've got such a desire to do everything, my head explodes ... I want to struggle, scrape off, begin again ... It seems to me, when I see nature, that I will do it all again, write it all down' (letter to E. Bazille, 26 August 1864, reproduced in Wildenstein, op. cit., 1974, no. 8, p. 420).
This palpable excitement and Sisyphean urge to capture nature in its entirety bore fruit in a number of exceptional canvases executed that Summer and Autumn, some of which were painted as pendants. In fact, Le Chantier de petits navires, près de Honfleur is one of two similar compositions in oil depicting this particular view. Joel Isaacson has claimed that these two canvases were conceived as a pair, with the sea calm in one and rough in the other (see J. Isaacson, 'Observation and Experiment in the Early Work of Monet', in J. Rewald, ed., Aspects of Monet: A symposium on the artist's life and times, New York, 1984). This view is consistent with Monet's later assertion that at the beginning of his career he would paint two canvases, 'one for dull weather, one for sunshine' (Monet, quoted in J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven & London, 1986, p. 135).
In a letter of October 1864, Monet outlined to Bazille that the version of Le Chantier de petits navires, près de Honfleur with the calm sea was an 'étude' or study; it is this work which is dated by Wildenstein to the Summer of 1864 when Monet was staying at Saint-Siméon (letter to E. Bazille, 16 August 1864, reproduced in Wildenstein, op. cit., 1974, no. 11, p. 421). The other work, presumably the present painting, was based on the study and was referred to by Monet specifically as a 'tableau' or painting, rather than an 'étude'. This second version was completed by the 16th October when Monet was staying at Sainte-Adresse. The process of moving from a study to a more realised, larger 'studio' work was conventional practice at the time and one adopted by Monet for his entries to the Salon the following year. The two paintings of the boatyard are of almost identical dimensions, however, and their differences lie primarily in the weather conditions and details such as the inclusion of fishing boats animating the choppy waters of the present work and the manner in which the tree-trunks and logs are cast upon the shore. The conception of this painting thus represents an intriguing example of a rare working method for the artist.
The composition of Le Chantier de petits navires, près de Honfleur, although indebted to the wedge compositions of Jongkind, displays a remarkable boldness in the cropped tree trunks of the foreground which seem to extend beyond the picture frame and lead our eye into the painting. Monet also displays deftness in his handling of paint where the broad, flat strokes of the tree trunks contrast with the dabs of paint conjuring the very materiality of the shingles and pebbles on the beach. Monet has an extraordinary ability to convey, using a restrained palette and quick strokes, a sense of substance; from the wet, dense sand to the wisps of smoke drifting up towards the softly wooded hill, Monet's dexterity with a paintbrush is revealed. The overcast sky, illuminated by flashes of blues, is also remarkable: Isaacson rightly describes the 'range of sky effects' of the young Monet as 'extraordinary' (Isaacson, op. cit., p. 74). Although Monet was at this stage still showing his indebtedness to his mentors and to the other artists working near Saint-Siméon in both subject matter and style, this rare early picture exhibits not just the technical mastery that he had begun to develop, but also carries in it the extraordinary promise of what was to come.