During his time in Étretat, as well as many other periods in his life, Claude Monet’s greatest enemy was himself. Despite the physical challenges presented by the cold winter weather in the seaside village on the Normandy Coast, the plein-air painter’s most difficult challenge to overcome was his persistent fear of a lackluster career and overall artistic failure.
In a letter written to his companion, Alice Hoschedé, while on his first sojourn in Étretat in 1883, Monet describes a series of sleepless nights when thoughts of hopelessness seemed to never end. But the discovery of a new painting location in the annex of his hotel which captures the picturesque cliffs and fishing boats lining the shore brings Monet renewed creative inspiration.
This audio recording is paired with Monet’s painting, “Fishing Boats (Bateaux de pêche),” on the free smartphone tour of Monet at Étretat at the Seattle Art Museum through October 17. Tune in when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
Fishing Boats (Bateaux de pêche), 1883
“… I am so worried that I can’t sleep anymore; tonight too, consumed with thinking about this damned exhibition, I listened to the lashing rain and felt hopeless. However, I didn’t waste my day. I was able to install myself in an annex of the hotel from which you have a superb view of the cliff and the boats. So I worked all morning from this window, regretting I hadn’t done it sooner because I would have been able to quietly create some superb things. Anyway, there are always calamities.” February 10, 1883.
– Claude Monet
Image: Fishing Boats (Bateaux de pêche), 1883, Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926, oil on canvas, 25 3/4 × 36 1/2 in., Denver Art Museum: Frederic C. Hamilton Collection, 2020.568, image courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.
Claude Monet traveled to the small fishing village of Étretat twice to paint the setting’s spectacular natural landscape. Both voyages—one in 1883 and another in 1885—took place in the winter season. Despite consistently cold weather and an unpredictable sea, Monet found these months of uninterrupted solitude and pure engagement with nature to be the most fruitful in his artistic endeavors.
Listen to excerpts of three letters Claude Monet wrote to his companion, Alice Hoschedé, while in Étretat in 1885. Written across five days, these letters express a combination of artistic inspiration and frustration. An unexpected period of good weather and the sight of local fisherman lining the shore each morning left Monet feeling both grateful for the beauty that surrounded him and raging at his inability to capture it all on his easels. With his time in Étretat soon coming to a close, Monet wondered whether he would ever be satisfied with his work.
This audio recording is part of a free smartphone tour of Monet at Étretat and accompanies the painting Boats on the Beach at Étretat, on view at the Seattle Art Museum through October 17. Take the tour when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
Boats on the Beach at Étretat, 1885
“. . . Etretat is becoming more and more amazing; it’s at its best now, the beach with all these fine boats, it’s superb and I rage at my inability to express it all better. You’d need to use both hands and cover hundreds of canvases.” October 20, 1885.
“For three days it’s been superb weather and I’m taking advantage of it, I can tell you; the boats are getting ready for the herring, the beach is transformed—very animated, so interesting.” October 21, 1885.
“I’ve begun quite a few things here, repetitions, in the hope of being able to work every day, but it doesn’t go quickly. It is true that with several good sessions the canvases can quickly take shape; I have returned to some canvases and I don’t really know how I will get it all.” October 24, 1885.
– Claude Monet
Image: Boats on the Beach at Étretat, 1885, oil on canvas, Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926, 26 × 32 7/16 in., Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1947.95, photo: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY
While looking for inspiration in Étretat, Claude Monet faced numerous mental and physical challenges. From the gloomy weather of the winter season to constant bouts of self-doubt, Monet struggled to keep his artistic spirit alive. Amidst all these hurdles, however, the plein-air painter also found days where everything seemed to go right.
In a November 1885 letter Monet wrote to his companion, Alice Hoschedé, the artist describes a productive workday. With the sun shining above and the tide exactly right, the artist was able to make progress on several paintings. Yet Monet knew these ideal working conditions would not last long. The start of a new moon signified another impending change in the environment of the small fishing village on the Normandy Coast.
Accompanying the painting “The Cliffs at Étretat,” this recording is available on the free smartphone tour of Monet at Étretat, now on view at the Seattle Art Museum. Listen to this and four other letters Monet wrote to Hoschedé while in Étretat, when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
The Cliffs at Étretat, 1885
“Finally a good day, a superb sun . . . I was able to work without stopping, because the tide is in this moment exactly what I need for several motifs. This helped me catch up—and if I had had the chance that this weather would continue for several days, I would get a lot of work done. It’s new moon today and the barometer is going up a lot, even quickly.” November 6, 1885.
– Claude Monet
Image: The Cliffs at Étretat, 1885, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 25 5/8 × 32 in., Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1995.528, image courtesy Clark Institute.
Two years after he first made the journey to the small fishing village of Étretat on the Normandy Coast, Claude Monet returned in the winter of 1885 to find renewed artistic inspiration. After one rainy morning, the plein-air painter set out to capture the landscape’s defining natural arch, the Manneport, from the beaches below but found himself victim to the sea’s raging tides. Too entranced by his own work to notice the turbulent waves ahead, Monet was thrown against a cliff and dragged into the sea along with his art materials, destroying the painting he was working on.
Listen to an audio recording of a November 1885 letter Monet wrote to his companion, Alice Hoschedé, recounting the accident. In his own words, the artist describes his struggle to emerge from the freezing waters, his fragile state after getting soaked, and the anger he felt toward the “old hag” he calls the sea. Despite the loss of his painting, Monet returned to the beach the next day with a new easel to once again paint Étretat’s breathtaking cliffs.
This audio recording is part of a free smartphone tour of Monet at Étretat, now on view at the Seattle Art Museum. Tune in to this and other letters Monet wrote while in Étretat, when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
Waves at the Manneport, 1885
“After another rainy morning I was glad to find the weather slightly improved: despite a high wind blowing and a rough sea, or rather because of it, I hoped for a fruitful session at the Manneport; however, an accident befell me. Don’t alarm yourself now, I am safe and sound since I’m writing to you, although you nearly had no news and I would never have seen you again. I was hard at work beneath the cliff, well sheltered from the wind, in the spot which you visited with me; convinced that the tide was drawing out I took no notice of the waves which came and fell a few feet away from me. In short, absorbed as I was, I didn’t see a huge wave coming; it threw me against the cliff and I was tossed about in its wake along with all my materials!
My immediate thought was that I was done for, as the water dragged me down, but in the end I managed to clamber out on all fours, but Lord, what a state I was in! My boots, my thick stockings and my coat were soaked through; the palette which I had kept a grip on had been knocked over my face and my beard was covered in blue, yellow etc. But anyway, now the excitement is passed and no harm’s done, the worst of it was that I lost my painting which was very soon broken up, along with my easel, bag etc. Impossible to fish anything out. Besides, everything was torn to shreds by the sea, that ‘old hag’ as your sister calls her.
Anyway, I was lucky to escape, but how I raged when I found once I’d changed that I couldn’t work, and when it dawned on me that the painting which I had been counting on was done for, I was furious. Immediately I set about telegraphing Troisgros to send me what’s missing and an easel will be ready for tomorrow . . . I send you all my love and hug all the children for me, remember me to Marthe. To think I might never have seen you again.” November 27, 1885.
– Claude Monet
Image: Waves at the Manneporte, ca. 1885, Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926, oil on canvas, 29 × 36 ½ in., North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of Ann and Jim Goodnight, 2016.8.5, image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art
One of Paul Allen’s favorite periods is obviously French Impressionism, and he has some exquisite examples. In Seeing Nature there are five paintings by Claude Monet. Monet had such a long life that he underwent a long evolution based on seeing and communicating his subjective experience to the viewer.
Monet was constantly trying to forget what he knew and what his mind told him—such as that if a stone building is brown it should be depicted as brown. He wanted to forget logic and just paint what he saw. In Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather, London was beset by terrible pollution and it created a very foggy atmosphere. For Monet, those atmospheric effects made for a series of beautiful paintings where you can subtly perceive the fact that there’s a bridge before you with smoke stacks beyond. The brushstrokes depicting sunlight coming through the arches of the bridge have more substance than the bridge itself. He was interested in the changing color effects of different times and days so he painted the Waterloo Bridge at different times of day.
Landscape on île Saint-Martin
Earlier in his career, Monet didn’t have the luxury of going far afield to paint. It took him years to be able to make a living. Landscape on île Saint-Martin and The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather are from the early 1880s when he was still years away from becoming successful. He painted where he was living with his family. During one summer, Monet was on a little island just north of Paris and painted it in all of its summertime glory with this beautiful field of poppies. There is a little fisherman’s cabin that used to be a watchtower right on the Normandy coast, an area of his childhood that he would return to many times over the years. These paintings reward looking close up, but they also reward standing back and taking in the whole—he’s thinking about both perspectives at the same time.
The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather
Claude Monet painted Venice fairly late in his career. It’s important to mention The Palazzo da Mula in conjunction with View in Venice–The Grand Canal by Edouard Manet. Manet was such an inspiration for Monet. Though he never called himself an Impressionist, Manet was absolutely fundamental to the movement. It’s interesting that both artists went to Venice—Manet painting in 1874 and Monet in 1908. By this time there is a historical body of work that artists have created about Venice. There are conventions about what Venetian paintings look like and both of these artists are interested in breaking those conventions.
The Palazzo da Mula
Manet’s painting is particularly radical. He is right on the water. It’s as though he’s painting in a boat. All of the grand views, the many beautiful buildings that intersect with the sky and water, are not his main subject. The dome, which was originally much bigger—there’s a pentiment that shows through a little bit now—he suppresses it. He doesn’t want that to be the main event. He’s instead much more interested in the mooring poles that are part of the navigational system of all the boat traffic in Venice.
View in Venice–The Grand Canal
When you see just the prow of the gondola come into the picture, it reminds you that photography has become part of the visual vocabulary by this time. A view can be cut off like a snapshot and a form can end abruptly. It’s not composed in that traditional way, it almost looks like a found view although he obviously worked at it. To me, this painting is an antidote to the kind of more melancholy mysterious aspect of Venice, which is so much a part of its literary reputation. This is more about a bustling city full of movement. It’s full of vigor and sparkling light in the middle of the day.
– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture
Note: This text is taken from an audio recording of a staff tour of the exhibition led by SAM curators.
Images: Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather, 1904, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 25 9/16 x 39 1/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Landscape on île Saint-Martin, 1881, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 28 13/16 x 23 5/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather, 1882, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 22 3/4 x 28 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. The Palazzo da Mula, 1908, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 26 1/6 x 36 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. View in Venice–The Grand Canal, 1874, Edouard Manet, French, 1832-1883, oil on canvas, 22 9/16 x 18 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection.
There’s nothing like a good rivalry to spice up a moment in history. I’d say it’s a rare historical note that isn’t improved by some verbal sparring or a gauntlet being thrown. Happily for us, the European Impressionists not only created a remarkable group of paintings, but also produced a natural rivalry in Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and Claude Monet (1840-1926). Manet was a leading influence in the years before Impressionism flowered, and when it did, Monet took the torch from him, becoming the new movement’s unquestioned leader.
In John Rewald’s History of Impressionism, we read about Manet’s first encounter with the younger Monet. The scene is the Paris Salon exhibition of 1865:
The two canvases shown by Monet were views of the Seine estuary, done near the lighthouse of Honfleur. Since the works at the Salon were now hung in alphabetical order to prevent favoritism, Monet’s works found themselves in the same room with Manet’s. When the latter entered this room on the opening day, he had the disagreeable surprise of being congratulated by several persons upon his seascapes. Having studied the signatures on the two pictures attributed to him, Manet at first thought it to be some cheap joke; his anger was conceivably not lessened by the fact that the seascapes continued to have more success than his own works. He left in a rage and openly complained to some friends: ‘I am being complimented only on a painting that is not by me. One would think this to be a mystification.’
Although in time Monet and Manet grew to be friendly artist-peers, sometimes painting together outdoors, such was Manet’s frustration at the Salon that he refused his first chance to meet Monet. “Who is this rascal who pastiches my painting so basely?” spouted Manet, in a masterful artist burn.
“Oysters” by Edouard Manet, 1862.
“Argenteuil” by Claude Monet, ca. 1872.
The two names were often confused in those years of Monet’s ascension and are sometimes still confused today, even with 150 years of distance. Comparisons were always inevitable, given the similarity of their names. It’s a great chance for some amusement, too. A famous caricaturist in 19th century Paris, Andre Gill, sketched a figure painting by Monet and attached the caption “Monet ou Manet?—Monet. Mais, c’est a Manet que nous devons ce Monet; bravo, Monet; merci, Manet.” (“Monet or Manet?—Monet. But it is to Manet we owe this Monet. Bravo, Monet; Merci, Manet.”) Cartoons over the years have picked up on the joke and taken it a number of directions. One of my favorite renditions is this Harry Bliss cartoon, originally published in The New Yorker (and for the record, it was Manet).
Not only for the syphilis, fate was pretty cruel to Manet: Here’s an artist who cared deeply about being recognized and accepted, who continually submitted paintings to the Salon in search of official stamps of approval—and he was frequently confused with, or overshadowed by, a younger artist who ends up leading the Impressionist movement and becoming one of the most popular artists of all time. And the two were only separated by one letter!
Today, being so far removed from the historical moment makes it easier for us to appreciate Manet’s work on its own, and his contributions to art and painting are widely recognized. Here at the Seattle Art Museum, we also love Monet: our permanent collection features the beautiful harbor scene Fishing Boats at Étretat. So we all arrived at a happy ending. But, just because those rivalries are so much fun, here’s one more spat from Impressionist lore.
On one occasion, Manet went to Argenteuil and set up to paint the Monet family—the artist, his wife, Camille, and his son, Jean—in their garden (this painting is The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil, owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Colin Bailey, a scholar of French painting and director of the Morgan Library and Museum, recounts what happened next: “While Manet was at work, Renoir arrived, borrowed paints, brushes, and a canvas from Monet, and executed a vivid close-up of Camille and Jean, joined by the rooster. Irritated by Renoir’s intrusion, Manet is reported to have told Monet, ‘He has no talent, that boy. Since he’s your friend, you should tell him to give up painting!’”
“Madame Monet and Her Son” by Auguste Renior, 1874.
Come tour our brand new exhibition Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art to see Renoir’s painting of that day in the garden—and judge his talents for yourself! And don’t miss a related SAM Talks event this month with Colin Bailey and SAM’s own director, Kimerly Rorschach. —Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
References Bailey, Colin. “The Floating Studio.” The New York Review of Books, April 23, 2015. Rewald, John. The History of Impressionism, 4th revised edition. New York: New York Graphic Society, 1973.