Capturing the intense glow of the setting sun as its final rays dramatically illuminate a cloud-filled sky, Claude Monet’s Coucher de soleil effortlessly demonstrates the artist’s growing confidence as a pastellist during a key period of his career, as he began to develop the unique Impressionist style for which he would become renowned. Amongst the most dramatic pastel compositions created by the artist during the late 1860s, this work forms part of a series of studies which focus on the constantly changing character of a skyscape near Le Havre under different atmospheric conditions, tracking the shifts and changes that occurred under a variety of lighting effects and meteorological events. For Monet, pastel opened his technique to a wealth of new motifs which he would otherwise have been unable to capture, allowing him to record even the most fugitive of natural phenomena on the spot with a rapidity and deftness that was impossible to achieve in oil paints. Here, Monet records the visual splendour of the fleeting event in bold ribbons of pigment, using the natural characteristics of the soft, malleable texture of the pastel to capture the array of hues that illuminate the clouds in the dying light, allowing the sky to become a mosaic of vibrant, gestural strokes that ripple and dance across the page.
Monet’s experiments in pastel may be traced back to the influence of one of his earliest mentors, the pioneering plein-air painter, Eugène Boudin. According to several sources, Monet first met Boudin when he was just seventeen years old, at a busy shop in the centre of Le Havre, Gravier’s, where both artists were exhibiting their work. Impressed by Monet’s caricatures, Boudin encouraged the young man to take his art further and invited him on a short painting excursion he was planning to take in the landscapes around the coastal town a few weeks later. Largely self-taught, Boudin’s practice was firmly rooted in the close, palpable experience of his motifs, be they boats, harbours, beaches, towns or people, a technique that proved revelatory for the young Monet. In Boudin’s eyes, ‘everything painted directly on the spot always has a strength, a power, a vividness of touch that one doesn’t find again in the studio’ (Boudin, quoted in J. A. Ganz and R. Kendall, The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings, New Haven & London, p. 61). Central to Boudin’s practice was the use of pastel to record his experiences before him, their pliable texture and soft finish allowing him to respond to the swiftly changing scene. These studies could then be used as the inspiration for future canvases, or as an aide-de-memoire in the studio, feeding Boudin’s creativity long after the scene had altered and disappeared.
Among Boudin’s most celebrated works in pastel were his keenly observed sky studies, described by Charles Baudelaire in La Revue française as ‘prodigious enchantments of air and water’ (Baudelaire, quoted in ibid, p. 63). Executed swiftly with minimum preparation, these works deftly capture the subtle nuances of the skyscape under shifting weather conditions, from the dramatic after-effects of a storm to the soft, diffused light of dawn as the sun calmly rises over a pink-hued beach. The spontaneity of these studies had a profound influence on Monet, leading him to proclaim later in life that Boudin’s techniques opened his eyes to a whole new world of artistic expression: ‘I watched [Boudin] more attentively, and then, it was as if a veil had been torn aside… I grasped what painting could be’ (Monet, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet or, The Triumph of Impressionism, Köln, 2006, p. 18). In paintings such as Coucher de soleil Monet’s bold approach to colour owes a clear debt to Boudin, its use of richly saturated hues echoing the sumptuous tones of the older painter’s work in pastel. However, Monet pushes his colours to new levels of intensity, while simultaneously achieving a complexity of facture that rivals the dynamism of his oil paintings of the period.
Filled with a rich interplay of peach, gold and blue tones, Coucher de soleil becomes an almost abstract, kaleidoscopic play of colour and line, the scene disappearing into a bold array of gestural strokes of pastel. Displaying a keen sense of the momentary, fleeting nature of the scene, the composition is suffused with a sense of the urgency with which Monet has attempted to capture its nuances before they shift and disappear. The richly worked surface is filled with expressive ribbons and swirls of colour, as the artist’s hand dashes hurriedly across the page. Superimposing fresh colours over previously applied layers of pigment and blending shades together with his finger, Monet develops an intensely tactile, sensuous dialogue with the motif. This gestural inventiveness appears to have been a direct result of the speed with which the artist has raced to match the pace of the natural, external phenomena before him, its bold, expressive strokes of colour evocatively conveying an impression of the time pressures under which he has worked.