Among the milestones of Impressionism, indeed of Western landscape painting, are the great series paintings made by Claude Monet in the 1890s, particularly his Grainstacks (sometimes known inaccurately as ‘Haystacks’) of 1890-91, and those of Rouen Cathedral in 1892-94. These explorations of the effects on the same physical objects of light, weather and seasons didn’t come out of the blue. Prior to the 1880s he had painted several loose series of related motifs, but hadn’t used the methods of the 1890s, except at Étretat. If Monet’s series originated anywhere in particular, it was when he was painting the cliffs of Étretat in the early 1880s.
Claude Monet visited Étretat again in 1883, 1885 and 1886, an unusually rapid succession.
Early paintings from these visits don’t show any particular method or pattern.
During his visit in 1883, he was attracted by the brightly-coloured fishing boats hauled up onto the beach round the corner from the Manneporte, in his Étretat, the Beach and Porte d’Amont (1883).
He was also fascinated by the sea during rough weather. His Rough Weather at Étretat (1883) is one of a series of paintings which he made there from the beach during storms. In his almost daily letters to Alice Hoschedé, Monet told of episodes in which the waves nearly got the better of him, and he was almost washed away with his easel and canvas.
Stormy Sea at Étretat (1883) was painted from the beach directly in front of the the village, and proved a prototype for a small series.
In his Sunset at Étretat (1883), he shows the same view, this time in calm conditions and very different light. It seems that he went away to think his series out before returning in 1885, by which time he had also been exploring short series of grainstacks.
In 1885-6, Monet completed a loose branched series; one of its four branches consists of six canvases (Wildenstein catalogue numbers W1014, W1014a, W1015, W1015a, W1044, and W1045), but the other branches are smaller in number, making 13 paintings in all.
This is the matching Rain at Étretat from 1886, clearly intended to be a companion to those above.
That year Guy de Maupassant described Monet’s unusual technique: “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.”
Following that, Monet took the canvases back to his studio, where he adjusted and refined them, using exactly the same methods which he’s thought to have used for his Grainstacks series, five years later.
He also painted some views from above, as in The Cliff of Aval, Étretat (1885). With limited dry land available on the beach there at high tide, this may have been a practical necessity, of course – something which is always an important factor for landscape painters working on the coast.
With the success of Impressionism and Monet’s fame, the cliff at Étretat became an essential stop on every landscape painter’s itinerary as they toured the haunts of the modern masters. Among the visitors during the closing decade of the nineteenth century was one artist who had helped Claude Monet early in his career, twenty miles from here in their home town of Le Havre.
In the early 1890s, when he was in his late sixties, Eugène Boudin became full post-Impressionist in Cliffs at Étretat (1890-94), one of several paintings he made then of the cliffs and beach.
Others like Félix Vallotton captured the great changes which happened in the village, in is Seafront at Étretat (1899). Watching a gathering of fashionable ladies on the promenade is the cyclopean eye of the Manneporte.
When the American Charles Demuth visited just before the First World War, he took to the top of the cliff and painted his watercolour sketch of the Beach at Étretat (c 1913), one of a couple of works he made of French beaches which are very sketchy in style, with people shown almost as annotations rather than forms.
I can’t help thinking that the ghosts of Eugène Lepoittevin, Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet must be watching over the shoulder of everyone who goes to paint at Étretat, the cradle of Impressionism.