There are many subjects depicted by artists in their paintings which are the same. One only has to think of religious paintings and the likes of the pietà or the deposition or even the crucifixion itself to see how numerous artists choose the same subject for their works of art. It is also reasonably common for one artist to paint many versions of the same subject. Think of how many times Vincent van Gogh painted his Sunflowers. The last blog I did featured a painting of Bentheim Castle by Jacob van Ruisdael and I told you that he had actually painted the subject no fewer than fifteen times. Today I am going to focus on geological structure that many artists have used in their paintings and I will let you compare them and see what you think. First let me show you the location as you would see it today.
The place is Étretat which is situated in the Haute-Normandie region of Northern France. The town itself is about twenty miles north-east of Le Havre but it is not the town which claims the fame and which has always fascinated artists but its cliffs. The single beach of Étretat is separated from the town by a sea-wall promenade and lies between two well-known cliffs. To the east of the town lies the Amont Cliff and to the west lies the Aval cliff with its huge arch, Porte d’Aval, cut through the chalk structure. Slightly offshore of the Porte d’Aval stands the solitary needle rock known as L’Aiguille. During the late nineteenth century this area of Normandy was very popular with Parisian families and with this popularity it soon became a very fashionable place to visit.
In 1868, Claude Monet lived at Étretat with Camille Doncieux, whom he was to marry two years later. He revisited the town on a number of occasions in the 1880’s so as to work on a number of paintings depicting the cliffs and sea. Étretat had already been painted by both Delacroix and Courbet and in fact Monet owned a Delacroix watercolour of the area.. When Monet visited Étretat in 1883 he had planned to create his own Normandy seascapes, saying:
“I reckon on doing a big canvas on the cliff of Étretat, although it’s terribly audacious of me to do that after Courbet who did it so well, but I’ll try to do it differently.”
Because of the increasing popularity of the area with holidaymakers, Monet sensed that there would be a good market for paintings depicting this area. The area had everything, magnificent cliff structures from the top of which one had spectacular views of the sea, which sometimes had a mirror-like calm sheen about it, whilst on other times it exhibited a terrible unforgiving ferocity as it crashed on to the foot of the cliffs, biting away at the base of the massive chalk structures
During the 1880s, Monet rediscovered the Normandy coast and visited the area many times so as to draw by the sea. He was fascinated by its dramatic cliffs and rock arches and was constantly looking for somewhere with outstanding natural beauty and a place where he could observe the effects of natural light on the sea and on the chalk and limestone cliffs. He would move from one position to another continually looking for the best natural lighting of the cliffs and the sea. His search for the perfect light on the sea and the perfect position from where it could be seen was of paramount importance. He once said:
“…I know that to really paint the sea it has to be seen every day at any hour and from the same spot to know its life at this very spot ; that’s why I’m repeating the same subjects up to four and even six times…”
In 1883 Monet completed a work entitled Stormy Sea in Étretat, which is now housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon. The painting is set on a winter day and we can see is being whipped up by gale force winds. It is believed that Monet worked on this painting as he sat at the window of his hotel room. What a wonderful depiction of the ferocity of the sea with the white curls of the surf atop the waves. In the foreground we have the beach on which we see five boats. Three of which are filled with what looks like thatch whilst the other two on the right seemed to have been abandoned and show signs that they have had to endure a battering in the waves. Two men, stand by the boats, looking out on the rough seas. To the left we have the cliffs and the Porte d’Aval, above which we have the storm and rain clouds rushing towards the land.
The next painting I am featuring is one which depicts a similar view but is a work which depicts the time after a storm. The title is La falaise d’Étretat après l’orage [The Etretat Cliffs after the Storm] and was completed by Gustave Courbet in 1870. Courbet visited Étretat that summer and stayed in a house by the sea which was tucked against the Aval cliffs to the left of the bay. He painted a number of versions of this scene but the one you see above is housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Courbet like other artists was attracted to this area not only because of the breathtaking geological structures but because of the quality of natural light and the clarity of the air. The composition of the sea, the land with its cliffs and rocks and the sky is well balanced. Courbet had sent the painting for exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1870 where it was well received and Courbet’s reputation as a painter was enhanced. Of the painting, the art critic and Courbet’s friend, Jules Antoine Castagnary, marvelled at the beauty of his friend’s work and described the elements of the work, speaking of:
“…the free, joyous air which circulates in the canvas and envelops the details…”
Another artist to depict this area in his painting was Eugène-Louis Boudin who in 1890 completed his work entitled Beach at Étretat. Here we are looking at the scene from a vantage point similar to the previous works. On the beach we once again see abandoned fishing boats which have been ravaged by the wind and sea. Sails can be seen hanging from mast boom, shredded by the ferocity of a previous storm and probably act as a warning to the men as they contemplate a return to the fishing grounds. In the distance we can just make out a steamship passing westward.
Two years later in 1892, Boudin, a noted marine painter, completed a very interesting depicting the beach at Étretat entitled Etretat, Laundresses on the Beach, Low Tide which is held in a private collection. The setting is the same but the tide has retreated into the distance. We are left with the brown and green of the rocks which have briefly lost their watery covering. The breathtaking rock structure of the cliffs is not the focus of our attention in this work. Before us we have a large group of women who have come down to the beach to do their washing. It is a veritable hive of activity.
For my final painting I am returning to one painted by Monet in 1886 of the Manneporte, a spectacular rock structure just to the west of Étretat and the Aval cliffs. It is entitled Manneporte (Étretat) and can now be found in the Metroploitan Museum of Art in New York. This was one of nearly twenty views of the beach at Étretat and the spectacular rock formations such as the Porte d’Aval, Porte d’Amont and the Manneporte which rise upwards on along the coastline that Monet painted. In this painting Monet has captured the way the sunlight strikes the Manneporte, this beautiful natural wonder. The reason for Monet painting so many pictures of the same scene was that he wanted to capture the changing light at different times of the day and during differing weather conditions
The writer Guy de Maupassant wrote his eyewitness account of Monet at Étretat.
“…The artist walked along the beach, followed by children carrying five or six canvases representing the same subject at different times of the day and with different effects. He took them up and put them aside by turns according to changes in the sky and shadows…”
One can so well imagine that scene.