A massive, undulating bluff, rendered in a glorious weft of pastel color, wells upward like a great wave before an ethereal expanse of sea and sky in this daringly conceived coastal landscape, which Monet painted in early 1897 during a two-month stay at Pourville. The ostensible subject of the canvas is the towering chalk cliff that ascends to the west of the Petit Ailly gorge; a small stone customs house stands on the adjoining headland, visible at the lower edge of the picture. Transcending the precise, Impressionist invocation of a particular site, however, the visionary Monet of the 1890s has here pushed the expressive qualities of tone, hue, and touch to the very limits of representation, creating a poetic and virtually abstract revelation of his native Normandy.
“Monet retreated further and further from locative reality into memory and imagination,” Richard Brettell has written. “Normandy, that place in which Monet’s career as a modern artist had incubated, had transformed itself into a pictorial scaffolding for his experiments with what critics then called ‘pure’ color, paint, and light” (Monet in Normandy, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2006, pp. 38-39).
The trip to Pourville in 1897 marked the second of two consecutive winter seasons that Monet spent at this modest fishing village, where he had worked for nearly six months in 1882. “I am enchanted to see once more so many things that I did here fifteen years ago,” he wrote to Durand-Ruel upon his arrival in February 1896 (quoted in Monet: The Seine and the Sea, 1878-1883, exh. cat., National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 35). The Normandy coast had been the site of some of his earliest experiments with the serial technique that now dominated his creative production, and his return to Pourville gave him the opportunity to re-engage—immersively and emotively—with motifs that had been instrumental to his evolution as an artist. “Going back to the Channel allowed Monet to return to his roots,” Paul Tucker has written, “assess his previous work, and test the Northern tradition of landscape painting on which his art had so long and firmly rested” (Monet in the 90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, pp. 205-208).
Monet had personal reasons as well for undertaking a new Norman campaign at this time. His Rouen Cathedral series, which he exhibited at Durand-Ruel in May 1895, had involved long stints in an urban environment followed by extensive studio work, neither of which appealed to his plein-air sensibilities. The elemental beauty of his native Normandy—its towering cliffs and sprawling, wind-swept beaches—offered a respite and a liberation after these arduous labors. “I needed to see the sea again,” he explained, “to gain strength from the sea air.” The death of two old Impressionist colleagues, Caillebotte and Morisot, in rapid succession during 1894- 1895, had put Monet, moreover, in a nostalgic frame of mind, inspiring in him an abiding desire to return to places where he had worked in his formative years. “I would have to travel a great deal and for a long time,” he explained, “to re-visit one by one the staging posts of my life as a painter and to verify my past feelings” (quoted in J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 31).
During his first stay at Pourville in 1882, Monet roamed all over the high chalk cliffs, employing a local porter to carry his canvases, and also set up his easel at numerous spots along the rocky strand. In 1896 and 1897, by contrast, he limited himself to just three principal motifs, each of which he explored in an extended sequence of canvases. “Painting series meant that he was moving around less, and there was a spectacular reduction in the number of his subjects,” Daniel Wildenstein has noted (D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, p. 313). Monet concentrated for the first few weeks on relatively straightforward panoramas of the coastline as it wound westward from Pourville. Having re-acquainted himself with the region, he then moved onto the top of the bluffs, seeking more precipitous, challenging vantage points. He painted one group of views facing east toward Dieppe and another, including the present canvas, looking in the opposite direction, toward the Petit Ailly gorge, a deep fissure where glacial forces had broken the cliffs asunder.
Contrasting with the natural drama of this awesome terrain was the small, unprepossessing stone cottage—a rare incursion of human presence in Monet’s work from Normandy—that occupied a flat spot on the bluff at the Petit Ailly. This was the so-called customs house, which had been built during the Napoleonic period as a lookout post to keep an eye on British naval activity and thereafter was used as a measure against smuggling. The cabin was later appropriated by local fishermen for storage and refuge; it no longer exists, the erosion of the cliffs having caused it to fall into the sea. It had been one of Monet’s favorite motifs at Pourville in 1882, and he was eager to re-visit it fifteen years later. “I arrived without problem and was greeted with beautiful weather,” he reported to his wife Alice in 1897. “As soon as I had lunch, I went out to see all of my motifs. Nothing has changed. The little house is intact. I have a key to it” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1989, pp. 219-222).
As he had in 1882, Monet circled the Petit Ailly and the little cottage, creating three interrelated sub-series that differ radically in composition and mood. “The cabin appears to have been a repository for Monet’s deep feelings of various and sometimes contradictory kinds,” Tucker has written. “It appears to be at once mournful and heroic, anxious and reserved, threatened and self-contained” (ibid., p. 217). To start, Monet positioned his easel across the gorge from the customs house and depicted it tucked protectively into the folds of the rolling landscape (Wildenstein, nos. 1427, 1448-1454). He then drew close to the structure and painted it, perhaps, as a proxy for himself—a solid, block-like presence on the very edge of the cliff, contemplating the expanse of the sea in total solitude, vulnerable to the elements yet committed to mastering them (nos. 1455-1458).
Finally, in an audacious sequence of five canvases, including the present one, Monet looked down steeply on the customs house from a higher bluff (Wildenstein, nos. 1428-1429, 1445-1447). The cabin now appears as a small, dematerialized form at the lower periphery of the composition, set within a pocket of deep shadow. It is dwarfed by and virtually indistinguishable against the looming cliff face, which pushes upward almost to the top of the canvas, the majestic powers of nature engulfing man’s humble creation. The resolutely material land mass, with its rippling, irregular contour, appears even more monumental against the weightless surrounding void. Its splendidly variegated tones and textures stand out in striking relief against the subtly luminous plane of sea and sky, which Monet has rendered with such a uniform, delicate touch that the horizon line is just barely discernible and the waters of the Channel seem preternaturally calm. The elevated vantage point hides the spot where the base of the cliff reaches the beach; only an elusive shadow at the bottom right of the composition suggests the conjunction of these two opposing realms.
Although Monet had depicted the customs house from almost the identical vantage point in 1882 (Wildenstein, nos. 742-743), the new views are profoundly different in their treatment of the motif. The plein-air naturalism that the artist had pursued at Pourville fifteen years earlier, observing and transcribing specific lighting conditions, has here given way to an evocative, almost mystical quality more consistent with the cultural climate of Symbolism. Contours are softer and less clearly defined, the bulges and hollows of the cliff playing across the flat surface of the canvas in decorative arabesques; forms are shrouded in fanciful, pastel hues, creating a mood of introspection and reverie. “Such paintings prompt a variety of responses...perhaps particularly in Monet’s case, a sense of nostalgia for the verities of familiar natural elements and forces in a changing modern world,” Richard Thomson has written. “Their vistas into the distance are veiled in a hazy light, creating panoramas incompletely seen, incompletely remembered, the soothing tones jinxed by the resonance of the past” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2003, pp. 35 and 150).
Monet exhibited twenty-four views from Pourville, collectively titled Les Falaises, at the Galerie Georges Petit in June 1898. These were paired with fifteen paintings from his equally poetic Matinées sur la Seine series, which had occupied him during the summers of 1896 and 1897. The Petit show was Monet’s first exhibition of new work since the Rouen Cathedrals three years earlier, and it was an unqualified critical success. The present canvas was most likely included as either No. 24 or 25.
Monet never again worked after this on the Channel coast. As an old man in 1917, long after he had retreated to the calm shores of his lily-pond at Giverny, he took one final trip to Normandy, not to paint but simply to gaze at the sea. “I saw and dreamed about so many memories, so much toil,” he recounted. “It’s done me good, and I’ll get back to work with renewed zeal” (quoted in Manet and the Sea, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2003, p. 201).