Painted during Matisse's visit to the Normandy coast in the Summer of 1920, Falaises d'Aval, les pêcheurs - Etretat, is a fresh and vibrant depiction of the breathtaking cliffs at Etretat (Fig. 1), the same cliffs which had inspired first Courbet and then Monet from the 1880s. The chalky cliffs curved out from the town in a cresent-like form before rising to great heights, their multicoloured, striated surfaces capped by contrasting lush greens. The d'Aval of the title is the spectacular arch at the northern extremity of the cliff and visible in the present work.
The infusion of light, colour and the obvious joy in which Matisse took in painting the cliffs at Etretat in Summer 1920 was certainly observed by the art critic Charles Vildrac, who in October of the same year, wrote in the catalogue that accompanied the first public exhibition of Falaises d'Aval, les pêcheurs - Etretat: "You experience at once both the light and the landscape, unable to disassociate them. The impalbable gauze that here and there finishes drying and polishing the sky, the beach, the cliffs, the horizon, the boat resting on the pebbles...you see all that in a single, absolutely simple image. Thus do Matisse's landscapes appear to me: and thus it seems, did Nature appear to him, touched by the miracle of a suddenly rediscovered light, the miracle lies in the painter's vision and in the power that he has to reproduce it" (C. Vildrac, quoted in exh. cat., Exposition Henri Matisse, Galerie Berheim Jeune, Paris, 1920). The painting was purchased at the close of the exhibition by the collector Dr Soubiès for 7,000 FFr, who by 1928 had collected 23 works by Matisse as well as important works by Cézanne and Monet.
Lord Berners (Fig. 2), who seems have shared Soubiès' love of modern French masters, was the second collector to own Falaises d'Aval, les pêcheurs - Etretat, which he purchased circa 1931. Berners' biographer, Mark Amory, lists the artists he admired: 'Corot (early Corot), Delacroix, Géricault, Monet, Ingres, Sisley, Cézanne, Matisse' (M. Amory, quoted in Lord Berners the last eccentric, London, 1999, p. 106). Berners' appreciation of 'the directness and simplicity of Corot's early painting' which to him 'seems the perfect method of dealing with landscape' might have encouraged Berners' interest in the harmony of colour and light found in Matisse's paintings between 1920-1925. Amory notes in July 1927 Lord Berners 'regarding a Matisse fixedly through his eyeglass at the Contempory Art Society', the present work however, was probably purchased from Alexander Reid of Reid & Lefevre, who, a friend remembers, 'used to come down to Faringdon (Berners' seat in Berkshire) with some Corots on trial for about a month' (Ibid., p. 108).
Lord Berners lent Falaises d'Aval, les pêcheurs - Etretat, to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1931, for inclusion in the first great Amercian retrospective exhibtion of Matisse's painting.