In late July or early August, 1869, Degas left Paris for the Normandy coast between Dives-sur-Mer and Villers-sur-Mer. It is likely that he chose this resort area in order to stay in touch with the Morisots, some of whom were taking their summer holiday in nearby Beauzeval. Degas had previously befriended the Morisot family: he had been working on a portrait of their daughter Yves, and seemed romantically interested in her sisters Berthe and Edma, both of whom were painters.
During this excursion Degas drew a series of more than forty landscape pastels. While it was once widely held that the artist's pastel landscapes were for the most part recollected or imagined views without topographical basis, reflecting inner states of mind, Richard Kendall has demonstrated that many of the 1869 series were firmly based on actual locations which the artist visited and were mostly drawn en plein air (see R. Kendall, Degas Landscapes, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994, pp. 85-107). Some, like the present pastel, are comprised of horizontal bands of color representing sand, water and sky, punctuated by the presence of small figures and the distant shape of a fishing boat. Although the lack of defined landscapes features disallows positive identification of the site, the presence of estuarial waters in the present work probably places the scene in the vicinity of the villages Dives-sur-Mer and Houlgate where the Dives river enters the English Channel.
As Kendall has pointed out, the presence of signatures and dates on some of the pastels, at a time when Degas rarely inscribed his works, indicates that the artist thought highly of them, and hoped to exhibit or otherwise market them to the public, perhaps in London. Nevertheless, these works have generally remained unknown, and were never exhibited as a group. Their radical appearance, almost minimalistic in their compositions, may have been an obstacle to their appreciation in their own time.
"Nowhere do we find the familiar conceits and trickery of the conventional landscape painter: trees do not frame our field of view, nor do pathways and avenues indicate recession; beetling cliffs and ominous ruins are not in evidence, and industrious mariners offer no uplifting narrative. The image might almost be defined by such potential absences, were it not for the spaces that are opened up and the expressive potential generated. In this understated world, simple oppositions of colors evoke weather and light, atmosphere and gravity. Lightly inflected pastel describes the elemental forms of land and water, and gentle transitions of tone suggest their recession and intermingling. It is a world without anecdote, without emphasis and almost without a coherent subject" (R. Kendall, op. cit., p. 87).
This pastel expresses a quiet solitude and hints at a formless metaphysical dimension which may seem uncharacteristic of this artist, who is more commonly admired as an observer of contemporary life. In works of this kind Degas approaches the absolute antithesis of the ideals governing linear form as set forth by Ingres and his followers earlier in the century, With disarming simplicity and clarity of observation Degas evokes a timeless, and for our eyes, an entirely modern sense of mood and place.