L'Aiguille, à travers la Porte d'Aval is one of Monet's most dramatic depictions of the Normandy coast. From 1880 until 1886, Monet sojourned every year in the region, painting numerous views of its towering cliffs and sprawling beaches. The scholar Paul Hayes Tucker has noted, "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 and was easily accessible from Vétheuil and later from Giverny where he moved in 1883. Of all the places he visited on the coast, several became his most frequented--Pourville, Varengeville, Etretat, and Dieppe. The numbers speak for themselves; of the more than four hundred landscapes he completed during the first half of the decade, over one-third depict these spots. Their appeal lay primarily in their dramatic cliffs and stretches of beach, their simplicity, starkness, and past history" (Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 107).
The present, awe-inspiring painting was executed at Etretat, a picturesque spot about halfway between Le Havre and Dieppe, with one of the most famous cliff formations in France (fig. 1). The cliffs curved out from the town in a crescent shape before rising to tremendous heights, their striated limestone surfaces capped by lush green grass. The most spectacular feature of the cliffs was a series of three promontories that jutted out into the Channel, each pierced with a monumental archway sculpted over the centuries by wind and water. Two of the arches were visible from the town itself: a low portal to the east called the Porte d'Amont and a higher, more dramatic one to the west, the Porte d'Aval. The latter was located directly alongside an immense, free-standing pinnacle of rock known as L'Aiguille (the Needle). When the tide was low, visitors could venture out onto the rocks and come right up to the base of the Porte d'Aval, as Monet did to paint the present picture. They could also pass through the arch into another cove dominated by the largest of Etretat's three stone portals, the Manneporte.
Monet first visited Etretat with his family from the autumn of 1868 until the spring of 1869, but painted only two landscapes during this time. The town did not seriously attract his attention as a motif for painting until February of 1883, when he went there alone for three weeks. He was captivated by the beauty of the site, writing to Alice Hoschedé shortly after his arrival, "I should tell you I am very happy to have come here. It's truly wonderful and I believe that I am going to do some very good things" (quoted in ibid., p. 114). He immediately set to work painting Etretat's celebrated coastline, producing at least twenty canvases in just three weeks; as he confessed to Alice, "I can't help but be seduced by these admirable cliffs" (quoted in ibid., p. 111). Monet returned to Etretat every year thereafter until 1886 and painted around sixty landscapes in total, more than he executed of any other single site during the decade. Tucker has pointed out that, "The one place where his interest in the sea and maritime life gained its most poetic and often repeated expression was Etretat" (ibid., p. 114).
Although Monet painted all three archways at Etretat, the Porte d'Aval was by far his favorite, appearing in more than thirty canvases. The majority of these depict the arch from the foot of the Falaise d'Amont, looking west across the bay (fig. 2). Courbet had painted a similar view in 1869, a fact of which Monet was well aware; as he wrote to Alice, "I am planning to do a big picture of the cliffs of Etretat, although it will be terribly audacious on my part to do this after Courbet who had done it admirably. But I will try to do it differently" (quoted in ibid., p. 117). Some of Monet's scenes of the Porte d'Aval from this angle include the beach in the foreground, while others show only the cliffs, ocean, and sky. Likewise, the Needle is visible in certain canvases and hidden in others, depending upon the particular vantage point that the artist selected. Monet also painted the Porte d'Aval and the Needle from the opposite side, positioning his easel near the Manneporte and looking east.
L'Aiguille, à travers la Porte d'Aval is one of only two that Monet made of the Porte d'Aval viewed close-up, with the Needle silhouetted inside. To paint these scenes, Monet had to climb down the cliffs to the foot of the arch, an undertaking that he described in a letter to Alice: "You are right to envy me. You cannot have any idea how beautiful the sea has been for two days, but what talent it will take to render it, it's crazy. As for the cliffs, they are like nowhere else. Yesterday, I climbed down to a spot where I had never ventured to go before and saw wonderful things there so I very quickly went back to get my canvases. In the end, I am very happy" (quoted in ibid., p. 111). The spot that Monet chose was uncovered for only four hours at low tide, leaving him a very short space of time in which to work. The results, however, were unsurpassed. The massive arch rises up the entire left side of the canvas before plunging into the white-capped waters, a jagged rhythm of forms rearing and tumbling toward the sea. The scholar Robert Herbert has written:
In these pictures we are brought extremely close to the cliffs in unusual compositions intended to make us feel small and powerless in front of awesome nature. [The paintings] could suit the words of Jacob Venedy, when he climbed the Aval in 1837: 'yawning gulphs open at our feet, out of which the agitated sea sends up tones like the voice of a bard singing the destruction of his race.' Monet's rocks have an overpowering presence by virtue of their writhing mass, and by a stronger contrast of color: his dark blues and purples stand out against the yellowish sunset. If we stare at his picture for a few moments, its rhythms force our eye upward, and then we sense the fragility of these delicately curved masses that seem almost to tremble against the evening sky, threatening us with their potential of collapse (op. cit., pp. 108-110, 127).
Monet's emphasis in his paintings from Etretat on the raw power of nature marks a dramatic shift in his work from the previous decade. In the 1870s, his paintings of coastal locales, such as Sainte-Adresse and Trouville, had centered upon their society of vacationers and leisure-seekers. Although Etretat had become a major resort for fashionable Parisians by the 1880s, the landscapes that he made there exclude all evidence of tourism, including the beachfront hotels and bathing cabins that lined the shore. Commenting on this aspect of the Etretat paintings, Herbert explains:
Because all signs of the resort have been expunged, should we not say that they are irrelevant? No, because if Monet had wished to find a truly lonely coast, he could have done so easily. He instead chose a very famous vacationers' site and therefore established a dialogue with foreknowledge. The meaning of the picture is in this dialogue, which is none other than the ideal traveler's experience: a famous place, seen in a new light. The cliff had become a visual cliché, but instead of the customary view from the beach, Monet constructed one that seems to involve the viewer in the experience of climbing up the cliff, alone. He and the viewer define their moment of ecstasy by detaching themselves from the crowd for a seemingly unique moment before untouched nature. Its uniqueness, however, is defined by its very opposition to the crowd that at other times one is part of. Without that antiphonal colloquy, the sense of uniqueness would lose its raison d'être (ibid., pp. 111-112).
(fig. 1) The cliffs at Etretat, with the Porte d'Aval and L'Aiguille (the Needle) in the foreground.
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Etretat, soleil couchant, 1883. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina.
(fig. 3) DO NOT USE-NICK'S PHOTO BEING SHOT Claude Monet, L'Aiguille et la Porte d'Aval, 1885. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.