Issue Number: 95
Across Europe in the 1860s, the seaside became fashionable. In France, the arrival of the railway swept Parisian society to new resorts along the Normandy coast. Alex Butterworth describes how this leisured world inspired the Impressionists, who captured the pleasures of its fast-changing scene.
During his childhood in the channel port of Le Havre, Claude Monet would have witnessed a transformation in the neighbouring towns and villages. For centuries, life had changed little in these fishing communities: summer brought long and hazardous expeditions in search of a good catch, winter an enforced period of repair and maintenance.
Yet in the years following the arrival of the railway, which transported tourists there from Saint-Lazare station in Paris in less than six hours, the Normandy coast was changed almost beyond recognition.
Hydrotherapy was the modish pretext for most visits. the start of the nineteenth century had seen medical science take an interest in the benefits of water treatment for a variety of conditions, ranging from pneumonia to syphilis.
Rigorous research, in Germany especially, underpinned the burgeoning popularity of inland spa towns, while in France the nobility returning from their post-revolutionary exile in England brought with them a taste for the salt-water cures offered at Brighton or Ramsgate.
By 1867, the town of Trouville, situated just across the seine estuary from Le Havre, which had been little more than a village with rudimentary bathing huts two decades previously, was acknowledged as being second only to Vichy as a centre for treatments: a ‘queen of the beaches’.
For several summers from 1863, a stretch of coastline of little more than 40 miles, bisected by the mouth of the Seine, hosted a concentration of artistic talent rarely matched outside an urban environment. to painters already attracted to the Normandy coast, such as Eugène Boudin and Monet, the presence of fashionable Parisian society offered them both a promising source of income, and in some cases an appealing new focus for their work.
The older Boudin quickly made a name for himself with frieze-like group portraits of visitors, including the Empress Eugénie and her entourage, dressed in what the press called ‘the Trouville fashions’; Gustave Courbet interrupted sessions painting alongside James Abbott McNeill Whistler, or refining his trademark views of the cliff arches, such as The Porte d’Aval at Etretat, 1869, to take on lucrative portrait commissions.
The interchange of ideas that took place during this time was complex and subtle, but arguably no individual was more receptive to them than the relatively junior figure of Monet. His gratitude to his friend Boudin for introducing him to plein air observation, and awakening him to the revelatory effects of light on nature was wholehearted. but the period in 1864 that they both spent living and working with the Dutch artist Johan Jongkind, who painted humble fishing scenes, would also prove influential.
The summer of 1867 found Monet in the lowkey resort of Sainte-Adresse. There, he painted a pair of coastal views that demonstrated the debt he owed, respectively, to Jongkind and Boudin, while breaking new ground in their subject matter.
Viewed from an identical point, hours apart, The Beach at Sainte-Adresse and The Regatta at Sainte-Adresse juxtapose the two worlds of the littoral. The first, a morning scene, shows fishermen with baskets and nets piled alongside beached dinghies on a pebbled foreground; just offshore, shrimpers ply their trade at low tide, under brooding skies that, like the foreground, recall the work of Jongkind.
By contrast, the regatta painting, full of leisured onlookers, portrays a light, bright seaside idyll, more reminiscent of Boudin: a blue sky above a limpid sea, with the white sails of the pleasure boats balancing the wispy puffs of cloud, while the high tide softens a shoreline that curves towards the horizon.
Edouard Manet , On the Beach at Boulogne, 1868
Painted only a year later than Monet’s Sainte Adresse pair, Edouard Manet’s On the Beach at Boulogne, 1868 (above), offers a panorama of beach life, viewed from the esplanade of the beach club at Boulogne, of which Manet and his family were members. In its flattened perspective, the image draws on the Japanese prints that were influential at this time, while the panoply of different elements derive from manet’s process of composition.
He sketched each component individually, from the wheeled bathing hut that is drawn out of the waves – a Boulogne innovation which had caught on internationally – to the donkey in the foreground, before assembling the painting back in the studio. The effect is akin to viewing snapshots in a tourist’s album. In its apparent simplicity, Manet’s painting creates an almost comic tension between the new fashions designed to amuse seaside visitors and protect them from the elements and the natural, restorative qualities of coastal life which they are ostensibly there to enjoy.
Though the more successful of the two, Manet was jealous of his younger near-namesake at this stage in their careers. Nevertheless, the reciprocal influence that was apparent in their earlier works continued through the 1870s, as their friendship grew. increasingly, Monet’s innovations informed the work of his senior colleague, as can be seen in two beach paintings from the beginning of the decade: Monet’s The Beach at Trouville, 1870, and Manet’s On the Beach, painted three years later.
Both are intimate, family scenes, featuring the artist’s respective wives: Camille Monet beneath a sunshade with her young son’s slippers drying on the empty chair beside her; Suzanne Manet on the sands at Berck – still a fishing port with a vast new beachfront hospital for city children – huddled against the wind beside her contemplative brother-in-law, Eugène.
Grains of sand are visible in the paint on both canvases, which share a similar tonal quality, and the loose brushwork attests to the confidence with which the two artists now captured the luminous atmosphere of the Normandy coast.
The challenges of painting the sea, whose mobility enhanced the transient effect of light, contributed immensely to shaping Impressionism, and yet 1873 would be Manet’s last recorded visit to the coast, while neither he nor Monet would return to marine subjects until the end of the decade. by then, Manet had ceded mastery of the subject to his contemporary: ‘he’s the Raphael of water,’ he is reported to have said of Monet, ‘he knows all its movements, whether deep or shallow, at every time of the day.’
In the years around Manet’s death in 1883, Monet returned repeatedly to the Normandy coast, often out of season and in extreme weather conditions, submitting more fully than ever to his quest to capture the sublimity of the sea without killing its energy. At Trouville, the construction of a great pier began in 1885, its girders subduing the waves of the sea as the rising Eiffel Tower was piercing the mystery of the air, while along the coastline the old, rough life of the fishing villages was tamed by technology: new employment was provided in fish-canning factories and ersatz folk festivals were staged for the tourists who flooded in on faster trains.
Whether deriving from commercial instinct or personal distaste, Monet edited his field of vision to crop any hint of modernity out of his paintings: the lack of detail in Boats on the Beach, Etretat, 1885, illustrating the timeless nature of his art.
Claude Monet, The Cliff and the Porte d'Aval, Étretat, 1885. Oil on canvas, 65 x 92 cm. Bequest of Marie Dabek, Paris, to the State of Israel in Memory of Jack and Mimi Dabek. On permanent loan to The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, from the Administrator General of the State of Israel, L-B83.006. Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
However, it was the unpredictable play of light that truly fascinated the mature Monet, who set about painting the view of the Etretat cliff arches that, around twenty years before, Courbet had made his own (above). His complaints about bad weather or the disobliging delays of the Etretat fishing fleet make it clear that Monet felt under pressure. Demand for his work was rising but, paradoxically, the pressure was liberating.
Contemporary observers report him working on three or more canvases at a time, to be certain that no change in light would leave him without a suitable project. Indeed, so immersed was he in painting a variety of different cliff views from extreme positions that Monet recounts one occasion on which he was caught unexpectedly by a huge wave and thrown against the cliff face, ‘but in what a state… my beard covered with blue, with yellow’.
Monet’s obsession resulted in such extraordinary works as Etretat, Rainy Weather, 1885, to whose title Monet appended the term ‘impression’ to underline its spontaneous, improvisational character. Perhaps it was professional pride that prompted this special pleading, since the surface of the painting is not as well-worked as many others of the time, which often returned with Monet to the studio for completion. In places, the primed canvas shows through the thin, rapid application of paint.
Equally, though, this work exemplifies the ‘impression’ to which Monet aspired: the artist’s brush in perfect service of the moment, its expressive power capturing forever the quintessence of light and movement.
Impressionists by the Sea, Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), 7 July–30 Sep. This exhibition has been organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, The Phillips Collection, Washington DC, and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, USA. Sponsored by Farrow & Ball
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