From 1880 until 1886, Monet sojourned every year on the Normandy coast, executing nearly a hundred and fifty views of the towering cliffs and sprawling beaches at Pourville, Varengeville, Etretat, and Dieppe. Paul Tucker has written, "Without doubt his favorite site during the 1880s was the Normandy coast; it obviously was in his blood from his childhood in Le Havre and Saint-Adresse" (Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 107). In his paintings of this region, Monet emphasized the raw power of nature, which his extended campaigns allowed him to explore in its myriad moods. All evidence of tourism is expunged from the scenes, and figures are included only very rarely. This marks a dramatic shift from his earlier paintings of vacationers and leisure-seekers at Sainte-Adresse and Trouville and paves the way for the celebrated serial production of his last decades. Tucker has explained, "The energy he once found in the contradictions of contemporaneity were now to be discovered in the magisterial way in which rocks meet water and land reaches to sky" (ibid., p. 111).
The present canvas was painted in 1882, while Monet was staying at the small, unpretentious port of Pourville. He spent a total of nearly six months at Pourville that year, working alone from mid-February until mid-April and then returning with his family from mid-June until early October. Upon his arrival in Normandy, he initially settled at the more fashionable town of Dieppe, but he found it too expensive and densely populated, and he complained that the beaches and cliffs were less impressive than those at Fécamp, where he had worked the previous year. Within a week, he had re-located to Pourville, two miles to the west. He was delighted with Pourville, reporting to his companion Alice Hoschedé, "One could not be closer to the sea than I am" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Edinburgh, 2003, p. 132). During his two sojourns at Pourville in 1882, he painted some ninety landscapes, an extraordinarily productive rate of about four canvases per week. He worked on as many as eight views in a single day, employing a local porter to help him carry the canvases. Richard Thomson has written, "The number of canvases in train at once testifies not only to Monet's hard work, but also to the variety of effects and motifs he sought, and above all to the nuances that he now brought to his work as a plein-air painter" (ibid., p. 118).
The present painting depicts one of Monet's favorite motifs from this campaign: the small stone customs house at Varengeville, slightly west of Pourville (fig. 1). The house had been built during the Napoleonic wars in the first decade of the 19th century as a lookout post for British naval vessels and smugglers. After Napoleon's death, the cottage was appropriated by local fishermen and used for storage and refuge; it no longer exists, the erosion of the cliffs having caused it to fall into the sea. The house was situated on a flat section of the bluff to the west of Le Petit Ailly, a deep gorge in the chalk cliffs. Monet depicted it in seventeen paintings from 1882, more than any other single motif that year (Wildenstein, nos. 730-743 and 803-805). In all these views, Monet presents the house as isolated and alone; it has been interpreted as a stand-in for the artist or tourist contemplating the sea in solitude. Tucker has written, "The cabin appears to have been a repository for Monet's deep feelings of various and sometimes contradictory kinds. Seen under a wide range of weather conditions, it appears to be at once mournful and heroic, anxious and reserved, threatened and self-contained. It also seems to act as a surrogate for various kinds of people--wayward travelers, old Norman residents, sailors, fishermen, or those who stayed at home waiting for their seafaring loved ones to return. It can also be seen as a kind of stand-in for Monet, who, like the sailor, was vulnerable to the elements but was committed to working with them" (Monet in the 90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1990, p. 217).
Monet's views of the cabin form several compositional clusters. In one group of canvases, he set up his easel on the opposite side of the gorge, looking west (Wildenstein, nos. 730-734; fig. 2). The little house is tucked protectively into the folds of the undulating landscape, nestled against the jagged section of the cliff that rises dramatically behind it. In the present painting and two closely related canvases, by contrast, Monet painted the view from above the cottage looking northeast, with the cliff between Pourville and Dieppe visible in the distance (Wildenstein, nos. 739-741; fig. 3 and Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts). In these paintings, the cabin is perched high above the water at the very edge of the promontory, creating a sense of drama or even danger. Robert Herbert has written, "The land is crowded to one corner, and we hover untethered over the scene because there seems to be no place for us to stand. The sea besieges the headland, but is resisted by the windswept cliff and by the cabin, a lonely holdout against the adverse forces of sea and wind" (Monet on the Normandy Coast: Tourism and Painting, 1867-1886, New Haven, 1994, pp. 47-48). Within each compositional sub-group, moreover, Monet treated different effects of light and weather. The present canvas depicts a clear, breezy day at Varengeville, with the water and sky rendered in a uniform palette of pale purples and blues. Another version of the composition also shows a cloudless sky, but the foaming breakers are stirred more vigorously by the wind (Wildenstein, no. 739; Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts). In the third painting in the group, clouds have rolled in, and the sea is roiling, dragging up the sand beneath to give the water a yellowish tone (Wildenstein, no. 740; fig. 3).
After the early 1880s, Monet visited the Norman coast only two more times, in 1896 and 1897. He stayed at Pourville on both occasions and revisited many of the same motifs that had occupied him in 1882, including the customs house (Wildenstein, nos. 1445-1458, fig. 4). In February 1896, he wrote to Durand-Ruel, "I set myself up here several days ago, I needed to see the sea again and am enchanted to see once more so many things that I did here fifteen years ago" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Edinburgh, 2003, p. 35). He specifically mentioned the customs house in the first letter that he wrote to Alice after settling into his hotel in January 1897: "I arrived without problem and was greeted with beautiful weather. As soon as I had lunch, I went out to see all of my motifs. Nothing has changed... The little house is intact. I have a key to it" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Boston, 1990, pp. 219-222).
The Norman coast had been the site of some of Monet's earliest experiments with the serial technique that came to dominate his production in the 1890s, and his return to Pourville at this time may represent an effort to re-engage with motifs that he viewed as instrumental to his evolution as an artist. The Pourville campaigns also reflect a more general interest in the latter years of his career in re-working themes from his previous painting. His Thames series of 1899-1901, for instance, was the fulfillment of a long-cherished plan to re-visit sites that he had painted in 1871. In 1901, he also painted a series of fifteen views of Vétheuil, where he had lived and worked from 1878 to 1881 (Wildenstein, nos. 1635-1649). The artist explained to Thiébault-Sisson, "Ever since I turned sixty, I have had the idea of undertaking, for each of the types of motif which had in turn shared my attention, a sort of synthesis in which I would sum up in one canvas, sometimes two, my past impressions and sensations. I would have to travel a great deal and for a long time, to revisit one by one the staging posts of my life as a painter and to verify my past feelings" (quoted in J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 31).
(fig. 1) Photograph of the customs house at Varengeville, circa 1900.
Barcode: 2800 1669
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, La Maison du pêcheur, Varengeville, 1882. Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
Barcode: 2800 1642
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Marée montante à Pourville, 1882. Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.
Barcode: 2800 1652
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Cabane du douanier, Varengeville, 1896-1897. Art Institute of Chicago.
Barcode: 2800 1638