The Institute is privileged to announce that an early seascape by Claude Monet, View of the Coast at Le Havre,
has recently entered its painting collection through the generous gift of Mr. and Mrs. Theodore W. Bennett. The picture, painted in 1865, nine years before the French artist's painting, Impression—Sunrise
provoked the famous epithet, “impressionist,” is in Monet's early style formed under the influence of Boudin and the mid-century circle of continental landscape painters who were developing a new way of looking at nature in opposition to the classical standards which prevailed in the French popular mind and artistic officialdom of the period. The painting, formerly in the collection of Faulque de Jonquières, is a comparatively small, horizontal canvas presenting a view across a peaceful bay near the Seine estuary with the profile of Le Havre and the curving Normandy coastline silhouetted in the distance. Unpretentious in subject and composition and painted with gentle, muted colors, the picture carries the feeling of a tranquil summer afternoon and of an artist concerned primarily with the subtle qualities of his theme.Claude Monet, who occupies a permanent place among the great figures of nineteenth-century art, achieved that position after the delayed recognition of impressionism, a style of which he was the chief founder and exponent, and one now famed for its brilliant colors, open brushwork, and illumined atmosphere. Between the painting in which he carried that style to its peak of expression in the last quarter of the last century and that of his early period there is a marked difference which has sometimes made it difficult to realize that the one was the outgrowth of the other or, indeed, that the two could belong in the development of the same master. There was less than ten years between the time that Monet painted the Institute's new picture and the 1874 Paris Salon when the new tendencies which Monet's art represented became apparent enough to give rise to the catch-word “impressionism.” Yet that brief time was significant enough to create a dividing line in historical taste which those born to traditions on the earlier side found it difficult to cross, and those who came afterwards, preoccupied with new horizons, found no need to penetrate in retrospect. Thus the work for which Monet was best known in his first years, and for which he could count upon some measure of official consideration, has remained little appreciated by twentieth-century generations. It is only today, as our perspectives into the recent past become clearer, that the early works of Monet and those of his mid-century contemporaries—Boudin, Diaz, Jongkind, Morisot, Daubigny, and even Courbet, Degas, Pissarro—have begun to assume living significance and to fit into their true place.Taken in its full historical range the tradition which culminated in the impressionist movement in European painting was an unusually long one, stretching from the eighteenth century, in the landscapes of Gainsborough and open air painting of Turner and Constable in England, to the work of the Frenchmen Vuillard, Bonnard, and Dufy of our own day. And despite the present tendency to consider the movement itself a kind of backward-looking episode immediately preceding the conspicuous revolution launched by the cubists and fauves in the early years of this century, it was really the high point, the crest that must be reached before the wave breaks, in one of the great groundswells of change which mark the reformation of taste and outlook at long intervals in history. For it firmly established a new and revolutionary view as the starting point for the work of art in direct opposition to the classical ideal of following a set standard which the academies had evolved and crystallized out of the art of the Renaissance. The components of that new view were at least twofold: the right of the artist to confront nature directly and to take as his starting point his personal, spontaneous reaction to what he saw as the basis for creating artistic value; and, second, by recognition of a new range of artistic values based upon the free juxtaposition of fresh experience rather than the refinement or elaboration of established old values. There was another aspect of the new view, of great significance in man's effort to reorient himself to experience in a swiftly changing civilization; namely, the legitimacy of allowing nature to “declare itself,” or acknowledgment of the fact that all elements of the environment have an intrinsic character and are potential carriers of beauty releasable through the independent exercise of the artist's sensibility.The norm of beauty which the impressionists developed in following this new point of view was what Paul Jamot has characterized as “predominance of the sensible over the intellectual”—a kind of beauty that went so far in the direction of presenting personal sensibility that “sooner or later it was bound to produce a reaction, proposing to restore the principles of solidity, order, composition.” It was not long before the reaction set in, as we know from the art of the last fifty years. But the work of the impressionists made it possible for the reaction to take place, for it proved the base for the artists independent action and made it possible for the artist himself to establish his own range of artistic values. What in the work which embodied this new style seemed to the impressionists' contemporaries to be the destruction of beauty was really the reaffirmation of it. The almost panic-stricken reaction to their “impressionist” pictures came not just from the feeling that the moorings to a sound, safe tradition had been broken, but from the feeling of being cast adrift. But the impressionists, with their new eyes, had new land in sight, had indeed found new moorings and their course was a surely charted as though they had known no other. The eventual realization of this new territory gradually disclosed the possibility of even more advanced discoveries, which it was left to their followers to explore. Without the principle of direct experience and the affirmation of beauty as an element which emerged legitimately out of that experience, the spearhead movements of modern art, like advance patrols into new territory, would not have been possible.Monet, at the age of seventeen, was indebted to Eugène Boudin, the Le Havre frame-shop owner turned landscape painter, for the advice which launched him on his career. In his youth he had won notoriety for his pungent caricatures of local people and, highly independent in his ways, seemed to be determined to follow no other counsel than his own, least of all Boudin's, whose paintings he disliked. But Boudin's sincerity, his warm admiration for Monet's talent and his gentle admonition that he would soon have enough of caricature, that he should “study, learn to see and to paint, draw, make landscapes,” won him over and as Monet himself reported, “my eyes were finally opened and I really understood nature; I learned at the same time to love it.”With his father's approval Monet went to Paris in 1859 to see the Salon and get the advice of several painters there, paying for the trip with money saved from his work as a portrait caricaturist. In the capital his interest seemed to be focused primarily on the landscape painters and he was especially impressed by the work shown in the Salon by Troyon, Daubigny and Corot. He consulted Troyon, who told him that though what he had done was “very nice” it was done too easily and that he must “draw with all his might.” These first days in Paris marked the beginning of Monet's association with that wide circle of independent artists who were struggling to find a new way of expressing their personal perceptions of nature against the weight of a popularly accepted academic tradition.Within this circle were a number of men—Courbet, Baudelaire, Corot, Pissarro—men whose names are more prominent today than they were in their own times; and a good many others—Daubigny, Jongkind, Miller, Bazille, to mention a few—whose names today area better known than their art. In Monet's formative years between 1862 and 1865 the men whose work or points of view was especially sympathetic to him were Boudin, Daubigny, Jongkind, Millet, Manet, Pissarro. For some time in the summer of 1864 he was associated with Bazille, both in the Fontainbleau forest, haunt of the Barbizon painters, and on the Normandy coast near Honfleur and Le Havre. The atmosphere created by these men in which Monet lived and worked, is to a considerable extent suggested by Corot's statements. He said to Pissarro, “One must study values. We don't see in the same way; you see green; I see grey or blonde.” And he advised his students to choose only subjects that harmonize with their own particular impressions, considering that each person's soul is a mirror in which nature is reflected in a particular fashion. A factor in the origins of this point of view was the attitude of the earlier Barbizon painters, with whom Corot was associated from time to time. In John Rewald's summation, “They tried to forget all the official precepts concerning historical and heroic landscape painting. . . and endeavored instead to let themselves become steeped in the actual spectacle offered by rural surroundings.”View of the Coast at Le Havre
is a painting, realized in the year following Monet's first summer at Chailly near Fontainbleau forest, which reflects the bringing together of this varied experience with the men representing the new individualist perception of nature. Similarities with the approach of Boudin became apparent by comparing the Monet painting with the Institute's unusually large Boudin canvas, On the Beach at Honfleur,
painted five years earlier. Monet's composition with its broad expanse of sky and its emphasis on the horizontal elements of the landscape is presented almost exactly as in Boudin's work. The scene is painted as it would strike the eye from a point close to the ground without any effort to exaggerate perspective for dramatic or storytelling effect. Monet, however, selects his subject in such a way that he achieves a sweeping view of the strip of coast represented despite the low viewpoint, an effect enhanced by his control of values in the beach and surface of the bay as it receded at a very low angle from the spectator. Boudin achieved the sense of vast space simply by his treatment of the sky, where the brush's reference is primarily to atmosphere rather than the tangible substance of water and earth. Reflections of the technique of Courbet (a man whose theories of social content never appealed to Monet and who was at the opposite pole from Boudin in personality as well as in his dramatic style) are to be seen in Monet's balancing of light of the sky and water with the dark land mass of the shore, and, again, in his application of light colors on a dark ground, here found in the creeping green vegetation of the dune—the technique of many earlier baroque painters who started by covering up their canvasses with a dark color and then built up their representations with highlights. Both of these techniques are seen to especially good advantage in the Institute's large canvas by Courbet, Deer in the Forest,
where the masses of foliage in the forest interior are given a rolling rhythm by controlled contrasts of light and shadowed areas and in Courbet's method of showing the texture of tree bark, of defining leaves, and even creating the illusion of depth by highlighting the dark ground.Monet's early paintings, however, goes an important step beyond the principle of using his personal perception of nature as his starting point and his discriminating adaptation of techniques of the avant garde artists of that time to that end. For, though the rippling effect of the water and the liquid, waning sunlight on the tiny waves shows an interest in the texture of natural substances, the economy of his brushwork in other parts of the Institute's new work—in the vegetation of the shore, the sandy beach, the projecting peninsula and the unclouded portion of the sky—indicates that he was painting not the subject but the tone of nature, the colors and effects thrown off by the sea, sky and land, and that these were the things that he was beginning to put down with increasing surety as the particularly personal was which nature revealed itself to him. And as the next few years of his work were to show, this was the beginning of the highway to impressionism, in which light itself was the subject, and the sensibility of the artist the main content which this new subject matter was to carry.The Monet picture is a highly valued addition to the Institute's collection of nineteenth-century paintings which, largely through the bequest of the late Mrs. Clara Hill Lindley in memory of her father James J. Hill, includes works by a number of Monet's contemporaries of the 1860s, men who, with Monet, laid the foundations of the impressionists' achievement and in doing so heralded one of the great cyclic changes in the history of art.Referenced Works of Art
- Detail of View of the Coast at Le Havre, an early oil painting by Claude Monet, recently acquired by gift.
- Claude Monet: View of the Coast at Le Havre. Painted about 1865. Recently presented to the Institute.
- Eugène Boudin: On the Beach at Trouville. 1860. A work by Monet's friend and early counsellor. Dunwoody Fund, 1915.