Impressed and inspired after viewing Gustave Courbet's Sea-Arch... (1869) at that artist's 1882 Ecole des Beaux-Arts retrospective, Monet journeyed to Étretat in 1883 wondering if he had the audacity and artistic chops to tackle that which Courbet had already done so well. Whether he indeed thought he did (or not), was seduced by the scenic cliffs surrounding the village or simply decided that the growing tourist market was too potentially lucrative to ignore, Monet was back in Étretat by the summer of 1885 and painting with a vengeance.
He created a famous series of the "elephant" arch Porte d'Aval and its sea needle over those months, painting both from many angles under different lighting conditions. Here, though, Monet has taken a break to rapidly sketch fishing boats pulled above the high-water mark in the sandy beach of Étretat's half-moon bay. One almost wonders if Monet knew that he was recording this scene for posterity's sake and that this way of making a living would eventually be forced out by the local economy's growing dependence on the vacation trade. Most travelers, it must be noted, enjoy gazing at large bodies of water. They just don't necessarily want to do so near a malodorous cleaning station while screaming seagulls swirl overhead in search of fish offal.
About the show:
Impressionists by the Sea takes a wondering look back at how the northern coast of France evolved from shore communities (that had lived off of fishing and shipping for centuries) to vacation spots for Parisians at leisure during the second half of the 19th Century. The full exhibition contains 60 paintings that focus first, in the 1860s, on the well-heeled sightseers who came and played, and later, in the 1880s, on the bounty of colors and light offered by the cliffs, sand and sea themselves.
Royal Academy of Arts: July 7-September 30, 2007
The Phillips Collection: October 20, 2007-January 13, 2008
Wadsworth Atheneum: February 9-May 11, 2008