Analysis: Monet's Early Landscapes
An in-depth look at Monet's landscapes from the second half of the 1860s, including The Beach at Sainte-Addresse and On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt.
Book: French Impressionists
Brettell, Richard. French Impressionists. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987, p. 11.
Monet’s landscapes from the second half of the 1860's were in every sense ahead of their time. He was only twenty-seven years old — a young artist seeking conventional success at the Salon — when he painted The Beach at Sainte-Adresse, a thoroughly unconventional landscape. Because his work was rejected frequently by Salon juries in the 1860's, it is certainly no accident that he did not attempt to publicly exhibit this painting until the second Impressionist exhibition, in 1876, when it was nearly ten years old.
This provocative landscape is based loosely on the paintings of Eugene Boudin, Monet’s teacher during the first half of the 1860's. Both artists painted everyday beach scenes along the Normandy coast where they lived. Monet’s aunt maintained a house at Sainte-Adresse just at the time the town was being transformed from a traditional fishing village to a suburb of nearby Le Havre, whose factory chimneys can be seen in the background of this seascape. The artist painted two identically sized canvases of this beach in 1867; the other is owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Although there is no documentary evidence that they were intended as a pair, they both seem to contrast the modern bourgeois world of suburban Sainte-Adresse and the traditional working world of the fishing village from which it had evolved.
The Art Institute picture represents a cold, gray day on a beach presided over by fishermen and their boats, while the Metropolitan painting shows a regatta of sailboats being watched by bourgeois spectators at leisure. In each painting, Monet may have been commenting on these class differences. He placed a colorful bourgeois couple in the middle ground of Beach at Sainte-Adresse, looking at the sea through a brass telescope and navigating two miniature boats. The contrast between the fishermen with their rough wooden boats and the bourgeoisie with their expensive toys is compelling.
On the Seine at Bennecourt, also included in the 1876 Impressionist exhibition, was another work finished nearly a decade before it was shown. It is much more broadly and rapidly painted than Sainte-Adresse and numbers among the greatest of Monet’s large-scale oil sketches. Where Sainte-Adresse was worked on over a long period of time, with Monet having made many changes in his studio, there is little doubt the artist painted Bennecourt on site, in several sittings. The landscape, seated figure, and watery reflections were executed directly with large brushes loaded with paint. Monet made changes in the composition as he worked, either omitting a figure or moving the seated woman. He also seems to have added a second, awkwardly painted tree trunk so that the elements of the picture would hold tightly to the left edge.
This landscape is noteworthy not only for the boldness of its handling and its brilliant hues, but also for its lack of a clear subject. The sleepy village of Bennecourt, not more than twenty miles west of Paris, is scarcely remarkable. The figure of Monet’s future wife Camille Doncieux is too crudely executed and "impressionistic" for its time to be considered the painting’s subject. Even the tree, which fills nearly a third of the surface with its foliage, is quite ordinary. Yet, the very lack of specific focus on any of the parts of this landscape make the whole more appealing. The painting represents what the French call un coup d’oeil, something perceived in the blink of an eye. It is direct, unfettered by obvious meaning, and utterly visual. How tempting it is, for these reasons, to call On the Seine at Bennecourt the first truly Impressionist landscape.