Last week, I shared the virtual walkthrough video of the 2021 exhibit, Monet and Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago). In that video (at about 8:30), one painting stood out to me.
I hadn’t seen the painting before and was taken in by the color and composition. It’s a beautiful painting full of lively spring colors. The movement of brushstrokes provides a sense of the brisk ocean air.
In the virtual walkthrough, the painting title is not provided and it was said to be on loan from a private collection. This intrigued me - what could I find out about this painting?
Lots of Google time later, here’s what I discovered.
In Volume II of Monet: Catalogue raisonné by Daniel Wildenstein, the painting is shown in black and white as Plate 806. From the catalogue:
Falaise á Varengeville (The Cliff at Varengeville), 1882
- 65 x 81 cm (25.5 x 32 inches)
- Exhibited: 1883, Monet exhibit in Paris by Durand-Ruel
- Provenance: Purchased from Monet by Durand-Ruel in April 1882 and sold to Michaud in July 1882. Since then, it’s been in private collections in Paris and England.
This painting has been in private collections and has been loaned out only a few times for public exhibitions. This may explain why it’s seldom depicted in books on Monet. But this made me even more curious.
Could I find the exact location of the scene depicted? And if so, what does it look like today?
First, let's set the scene at the beginning of 1882.
Claude Monet was 42 years old. His wife Camille had died 3 years before and he was in a relationship with the still-married Alice Hoschedé. Claude and Alice had recently moved to Poissy, west of Paris, with her 6 children and Monet’s 2 sons.
Alice wasn’t happy about the move and, if that wasn’t enough, Monet was nearly broke. In February 1882, he made a solo trip to the northern coast in hopes of finding new inspiration.
Unsatisfied with his first stop in Dieppe (too touristy), he went looking for a rugged, less populated area to paint. He walked, “all over the countryside, along the paths, above and below all the cliffs.”
In his quest, he discovered the small fishing village of Pourville-sur-Mer and the cliff views to the west. It was quite the find because the scenery in this area would be the inspiration for nearly 100 paintings created that year. Monet painted these isolated coastal scenes from all angles, at different times of day, and in various weather.
The precise location of the scene in Falaise à Varengeville is over a mile west of the village of Pourville. Monet would have trekked this distance on foot.
He spent a lot of time hauling canvas and paint in all types of brutal coastal weather. He complained in his letters to Alice about the conditions while also being thrilled at the views.
The painting must have been created by Monet shortly after his arrival at the coast because it was purchased by his art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in April 1882.
Durand-Ruel was not only an art dealer, he also financed Monet in his bleakest times by advancing him money. And he counseled Monet through dark days. When Monet wrote of the frustration he encountered at the coast, threatening to destroy the paintings in progress, Durand-Ruel responded, “Please don't do that. I'll send you money. Just send me the canvases in return.”
In the painting, Falaise à Varengeville, you can see the roofline of a cottage tucked into the cliffs. The cabin was initially an observation point over the coast for customs officers and later became a shelter for fishermen. Monet painted this cottage many times from various viewpoints.
In the historic photo below by Georges Marchand, you can see the cabin. Monet would have been standing at about this same spot to paint Falaise à Varengeville. What a view!
Here’s a side by side.
What does the scene look like today?
The cliffs have been crumbling away and the cottage was unfortunately lost to erosion in the 1950s.
Here is a current Google map image of the area.
The area remains beautiful, undeveloped, private land with cows in a nearby field.
The photo below was taken from a hiking trail, perhaps the same trail that Monet took in search of painting spots in 1882.
The cottage would have sat just over the crest of that field. The village of Pourville has grown but it is still quaint.
In his personal and artistic life, Monet took the road less traveled, grumbling at every step, but I doubt he would have wanted it any other way. It was a joy to learn about the location of Falaise à Varengeville and the effort Monet made for his coastal scenes of 1882.
Monet: Catalogue raisonné - Werkverzeichnis, Volume II: Nos. 1–968 by Daniel Wildenstein
Monet or the Triumph of Impressionism, Daniel Wildenstein
Claude Monet: life and art, Paul Hayes Tucker
Monet in Normandy, Richard Brettell