Painted in 1885, Claude Monet's Étude de bateaux sur la plage d'Étretat shows one of the motifs that occupied the Impressionist artist during his stay that year in Étretat, on the Normandy coast, the vessels at rest, drawn up on the shore. While he was staying there, Monet painted various scenes showing the cliffs, including the Manneporte; closer to his rooms, though, he painted various more nautical themes, for instance the harbour, fishing vessels on the water and, as here, the boats pulled up on land. During the Winter, many of these boats were not being used, meaning that Monet could return to study his subject again and again, working in situ.
As well as creating several paintings of this sight, several drawings also survive showing almost exactly the same view seen here. In several of the works that Monet painted at this time, the artist took a place on the dry-dock, the 'perrey', whereas the present composition appears to have been painted from the ground level, showing the boats from closer than many of its sister pictures, several of which are in museum collections including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Szépmuvészeti Múzeum, Budapest. It was during this same stay that Monet's choice of vantage-point almost caused disaster as, while painting the cliffs, he miscalculated the tide and was bowled over by a wave which began to drag him to see.
Monet's use of the boats on the beach allowed him to create a composition that has an almost abstract quality in terms of the rhythm of the forms that progress across the canvas, not least in the form of the various masts which form such dynamic, criss-crossing lines, leading the eye. This sense of visual rhythm is echoed in one of the Japanese prints that Monet had in his own collection which itself showed the boats as dark, regular masses on the water. In Étude de bateaux sur la plage d'Étretat, that sense of near abstraction is accentuated by the bold, tripartite arrangement of the horizontal bands of sky, sea and sand that dominate so much of the canvas. At the same time, the boats are very much the evidence of human endeavour, poetic subjects that speak both of pleasure and of industry. It is that combination of their formal attributes and their evocative human content that would lead Monet's fellow artist Vincent van Gogh to depict several similar scenes at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, at the other end of France on the Mediterranean coast of the South of France, only three years later.