In July 1897, at age 57, Sisley unexpectedly interrupted the quiet pattern of his work and life at Moret-sur-Loing and embarked upon a three-month trip to Great Britain, his ancestral homeland. This exceptional journey achieved two significant goals. On the personal front, Sisley wed his long-time partner Eugénie Lescouezec and formally acknowledged paternity of their children Pierre and Jeanne, who thereby received British citizenship and inheritance rights. From an artistic perspective, he tackled novel subject matter—the twenty paintings from this trip are the only seascapes of his entire career—that elicited a heightening of his palette and an unusually bold application of paint, establishing new directions for his art in the short time that remained to him (Daulte, nos. 865-881, plus three ex-Daulte).
The couple spent the first month of their trip at the Welsh seaside resort of Penarth near Cardiff, where Sisley set up his easel on a gently undulating clifftop and rendered the broad expanse of Bristol Channel. He soon desired more dramatic, challenging terrain, though, and in mid-August he and Eugénie re-located to Langland Bay near Swansea, which boasted vertiginous limestone headlands such as Monet had painted in Normandy. “The countryside is totally different from Penarth,” Sisley wrote to Adolphe Tavernier, “hillier and on a larger scale. The sea is superb and the subjects are interesting, but you have to fight hard against the wind, which reigns supreme” (quoted in R. Shone, op. cit., 1992, pp. 188-192).
The present canvas depicts the partially collapsed cliff that defines Lady’s Cove, a sheltered inlet at the eastern end of Langland Bay. Sisley made four views of this irregular crag, altering his vantage point slightly in each canvas and exploring the motif under varying conditions of light, weather, and tides (Daulte, nos. 871-874). Here, the powerfully volumetric mass of the cliff stands out sharply against the preternaturally calm ocean and lightly cloud-swept sky, its asymmetrical thrust providing a foil to the low, stable horizon line. Sisley used a thick, heavily loaded brush to convey the extreme physicality of the rugged rock, which dwarfs the vacationers who dot the pebbly shingle; the cliff seems to seethe and churn as it descends toward the water.
Shortly after his return to Moret in early October, Sisley fell ill and virtually stopped painting; just over a year later, he was dead. The elemental confrontation of land, sea, and sky that he captured in his paintings from Langland Bay would prove to be his valedictory artistic statement. “They suggest the whole direction of his endeavor, his search for an equilibrium between stability and transience,” Richard Shone has written. “The rock remains hard and tenacious beneath its chameleon changes of outline and color, an exemplary image, confessional in its intensity, for the close of Sisley’s life” (ibid., p. 192).