Painted in 1888, Plage de Juan-les-Pins dates from Monet's stay in Antibes that year. He had set off in January, and would remain there until May, exploring the Mediterranean light in one of his most successful and celebrated series of paintings. Monet had first visited the French and Italian Rivieras five years earlier with Renoir, then again the next year on his own. However, his 1888 trip was far more fruitful, resulting in several series of strong and evocative paintings of the South. While there, Monet stayed in the Château de la Pinède, which was very near the spot from which Plage de Juan-les-Pins was painted. As has been observed in the Wildenstein catalogue raisonné of Monet's works, we can distinguish the Golfe Juan, and beyond it the heights of Vallauris in this painting.
The paintings that Monet painted during this period were limited to a small number of tight groups, each exploring subtle variations, either in weather or in angle. Weather dictated his choices less than position in the South of France because, even as Spring approached, and even when he was plagued by bad weather here and there, much of the weather appeared, to the painter's eye, to vary less than it did further north or on the Atlantic coast. This would prove ideal for Monet, a dedicated plein air painter who believed in being in the subject in order to truly render it on the canvas. During the fine weather, he was able to spend much time outdoors painting, capturing the nuances of the effects of light and sea. However, during the bad weather he still insisted on painting, although this was often to the detriment of the canvases. His insistence on painting outdoors came to a head when on one occasion he reportedly had to chain his easel to the ground. Plage de Juan-les-Pins is clearly the result of the better weather.
The artist's own moods were more changeable than the weather, as is recorded in a series of letters that he wrote to Alice, back in Giverny. While in some of them he bemoaned his lack of success or the bouts of bad weather, in others he celebrated his own work: 'The fine weather is back with a vengeance, and I'm working constantly,' he wrote on the 4th March. Indeed, this letter reveals his passion both for the South and for Alice, as he continues, 'I'm so anxious to have it over with and be back with you that it spurs me on, it's like a fever' (Monet, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet or the Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 1996, vol. I, p. 238). Thus it was not only the landscape around him, but also the painful separation from Alice and home that acted as a catalyst in the creation of these paintings.
Of the various small groups of paintings he executed during this period, this group from roughly the same spot, showing trees in the foreground and the sea in the background and including Plage de Juan-les-Pins, were amongst the strongest and most successful (these are W.1186-93). They combined the light of the sky and the glimmer of the sun on the sea with the shadow cast by the canopies of the trees. Here, the pines provide a cool and luscious dark against the pale sky and the crisp, early evening light that suffuses so much of the painting, subtle pinks in the branches hinting at the lowering sun. Several of these works capture the angular light of various times at the end of the day, especially Juan-les-Pins (fig. W.1189), which appears to have been painted from almost exactly the same spot but from a slightly different angle, to the extent that the same split tree and the same horizon feature in both. Juan-les-Pins in turn shows the same view, but at another time of day, as Arbres au bord de la mer, Antibes (W. 1188). In these paintings, Monet has charted varying degrees of light and dusk, exploring the nuances and variations that the different times of day presented.
The paintings that Monet produced in the South were destined for a major exhibition to be held at Galerie Georges Petit in the summer of 1889.
When this exhibition came about, it was by far the largest that he had ever had, comprising a vast number of his works, including Plage de Juan-les-Pins. This had been one of Monet's motives in staying in the South: he was creating works for the exhibition. His angst at the amount that he was producing (and the amount that he lost in bad weather, showing the extent to which he was a plein-air painter) prompted him to delay again and again his return to Giverny.
When Monet finally returned, he was visited by Theo van Gogh, who was working for Boussod, Valadon et Cie. On seeing the works that Monet had created in the South, he immediately bought ten of them, including Plage de Juan-les-Pins, thus showing the truth in the words that his brother Vincent had written before the visit: 'You will see some lovely things at Claude Monet's. And you will think that I send very poor stuff in comparison' (V. van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, 1958, vol. II, no. 483, p. 561). So breathtaking did he consider these works, that rather than wait at all, van Gogh prepared an exhibition for these ten works in June and July. Theo had bought these works for between 1000 and 1300 francs each, totalling 11,900 francs. Plage de Juan-les-Pins was one of the works that was bought for 1300, and was successfully sold to Emile Boivin at the exhibition.
This exhibition met with considerable acclaim. Wildenstein notes numerous prominent visitors, including Guy de Maupassant, Prince Eugene of Sweden, and Stéphane Mallarmé, who was heard to exclaim, 'Ah yes, as poor Edouard used to say, Monet is a genius' (Mallarmé, quoted in Wildenstein, op.cit., vol. I, 1996, p. 243). The exhibition received enough attention that Vincent van Gogh bemoaned the fact that he might miss it in a letter to the Australian painter John Russell: 'My brother has an exhibition of 10 new pictures by Claude Monet - his latest works... I wished I could see them' (Van Gogh, op.cit., Vol. II, no. 501a, p. 593).
The criticism itself also involved great praise, all the more striking for its being prompted by such a small exhibition, as demonstrated in Georges Jeanniot's review:
'Ten paintings by Claude Monet, done in Antibes. The very name of this artist is a drawing card; the works of this well-known personality arouse strong passions, for or against, in people who are interested in painting. The aforementioned pictures are on view in the mezzanine of the gallery. They occupy two badly lit adjoining rooms. However, his paintings survive the inadequate lighting' (G. Jeanniot, quoted in Monet: A Retrospective, ed. C.F. Stuckey, New York, 1985, p.129).
Thus Jeanniot attests to the paintings' strength and luminosity, as they are able to transcend their surroundings. He continues with a discussion of Monet's paintings, marvelling at his abilities to capture the scenes in oil: 'Is Monet conscious, as he paints, of the strange affinity between perfumes, sounds and colors? He must be. His brushstrokes make the Mediterranean sound like the murmurs of lovers... [The Antibes paintings] bestow a warm, scented caress' (Jeanniot, ibid., p. 129).
Commenting on the same exhibition, Gustave Geffroy was so awestruck by Monet's virtuoso depictions of the weather and water that he referred to the artist as 'the poet and the historian of the south of France' (Geffroy, quoted in J. Pissarro, Monet and the Mediterranean, New York, 1997, p. 63).