Claude Monet's Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant was painted on the Normandy coast in 1882 and is one of several historic views of this church that he created that year. This light-saturated picture, which is filled with the delicate light of evening, in fact belongs to a group of four views from similar stand-points. In only one of these do the trees to the right not feature, implying some movement; of these pictures, the others are all in museum collections: the Columbus Museum of Fine Art, Ohio; the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham; the JB Speed Art Museum, Louisville. In each of these works, Monet has explored a different light effect, underscoring his credentials as an Impressionist and also pioneering the serial works which he would create more and more frequently during the rest of his career, for instance his pictures of haystacks, of Rouen Cathedral or of water lilies. Monet and his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, appear to have recognised the importance of Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant as it was included, only the year after its completion, in the important one-man exhibition held in his gallery in Paris. Indeed, a drawing specifically created by Monet after this picture was used to furnish one of the reviews, by Alfred de Lostalot, in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Durand-Ruel managed to sell the picture to his rival Georges Petit, but would later buy it back. Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant also passed through the hands of several celebrated collectors, including Henri Vever and Jules-Emile Boivin. The iconic nature of this series was reflected when they were used as a springboard for the Brazilian contemporary artist Vik Muniz' 9000 Yards, Church on a Hilltop at Varengeville, after Claude Monet, which comprises a photograph taken of a reconstruction of the same view, made with 9000 yards of thread.
Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant was painted at a turning point in Monet's life and career. He had returned to his native Normandy at the beginning of 1882 in order to paint there, having left his children with Alice Hoschedé in Poissy. They had recently moved there, having left Vétheuil, but were suffering from the friction of their unusual domestic situation. In Vétheuil, Alice had been a part of the household, helping Monet with the children following the death of his wife Camille in September 1879. For her to move with him to Poissy, while still ostensibly married to Ernest Hoschedé, tore some of the veil of altruism from some people's eyes, and she found it hard, living with six children on a shoestring while Monet was elsewhere.
It may have been this fractious domestic background, including the recent bereavement, that brought about the change in atmosphere in Monet's depictions of Normandy. This was, after all, the region in which he had learnt to paint, having been taken under the wing of the great local master, Eugène Boudin. Monet had painted Normandy again and again throughout his life; yet now, at the beginning of the 1880s, he disregarded the scenes of modern life and fashion that had so fascinated him before, instead seeking out dramatic vistas that were often devoid of people and which conveyed a sense of desolation as well as intense, rugged beauty. This is certainly the case with Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant, in which the church is shown perched on a distant crag; the shoreline appears to plummet to the sea, a landscape filled with beauty but perhaps not with comfort. Like many of his landscape paintings from this campaign, Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant is devoid of people. The church of Saint Valéry, so poignantly poised, would have been a perfect expression of his mood, all the more so because of its graveyard filled with simple markers for the deceased fisherfolk (a later artistic connection would come when Georges Braque, who lived locally, created stained glass windows for the church, and after his death was buried there).
Monet was fascinated with the landscape in Normandy, rough-hewn by the weather and the waves. 'I can't help myself from being seduced by these admirable cliffs,' he declared (Monet, quoted in R.L. Herbert, Monet on the Normandy Coast: Tourism and Painting, 1867-1886, New Haven & London, 1994, p. 73). The year before he painted Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant, he had been enchanted by the views at Fécamp; the year after, he would tackle one of the icons of the French landscape, Etretat, which had previously been painted by a number of artists including another of his mentors, and indeed a witness at his wedding, Gustave Courbet. It has been suggested that Monet's return to Normandy in the early 1880s was in part a reaction to Courbet's legacy: he had died in 1877, but his Normandy landscapes and seascapes had become significant parts of the French avant garde canon, tapping into a vision of France during that troubled period following its defeat during the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent revolutionary chaos. Certainly, looking at Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant, there is more of Courbet's grandeur than of the ephemerality of the flighty society life that had previously occupied Monet.
On his 1882 campaign in Normandy, Monet had initially arrived in Dieppe. Having been brought up in Le Havre and exposed to life in Paris, he had been disappointed by the city, although impressed by its surroundings. Soon, he had discovered and relocated to Pourville, a small town on the coast which had little other than fishermen's houses and a casino-hotel named 'A la Renommée des Galettes', in which he stayed. As he had arrived off-season, the proprietor, an Alsatian chef called Paul Graff, looked after him with enthusiasm - and crucially, for very little money. From Pourville, Monet was able to travel to a number of sites, discovering views along the coast that he was able to immortalise in his paintings. Among these were several spots at Varengeville, a little further along the coast. The church shown in Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant was one motif which obviously attracted Monet, as he painted it several times from approximately the same position, returning to it later in the year and showing it cresting the cliffs as viewed from below in three other views (interestingly, two years earlier it had also caught the eye of his friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who depicted it during a stay with Paul Bérard at the nearby Château de Wargemont). Monet was also struck by the customs hut at Le Petit Ailly, by Varengeville, which he painted more than a dozen times that year, visiting it both on his first trip at the beginning of 1882 and also later, when he returned to Pourville with Alice and their respective children during the Summer. He would subsequently return to the same motif in the 1890s; the house no longer exists, a victim of the erosion of the cliffs.
The customs house had been in a striking location upon the cliffs at a height designed to give it a panoramic view of the sea, from which Monet himself clearly profited. Originally, the customs house had been built there so that the coast could be surveyed as part of a campaign of vigilance ordered by Napoleon, aimed at preventing any invasion by the British armed forces at the beginning of the year. In the views of that house, Monet showed it from a variety of angles, but in many of them, he was exploring compositions analogous to that shown in Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant, with the building perched on the shoulder of the slope, a ravine dividing it from the artist or viewer, the sea occupying a significant part of the background, with a relatively high horizon giving the sense of looking downwards, emphasising the plummeting coastline.
As befits a view of a church, a more stately edifice than the customs watchman's hut, the similarities in composition belie the difference in atmosphere between the two groups of pictures: there is an informality in the latter pictures that is at odds with the more composed impression given by the four paintings of the church of Varengeville. This is especially the case in the pictures which contain the group of trees to the right: this serves as a framing device, emphasising scale and distance, while also recalling the landscapes of one of the great fathers of the genre, Claude Gellée, better known as Claude Lorrain (or even simply Claude, or 'le Lorrain'). It is a mark of the distance that Monet's art had come that he was willing to confront a composition that would certainly echo the pictures by the Old Master.
Indeed, it is a confrontation: where Claude would depict his idealised landscapes with incredible, meticulous attention to detail, usually placing some form of narrative element in the foreground, such as his picture of Hagar and the Angel, Monet was using such formality as a foil for his own far more lively presentation of his view. There is an immediacy to Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant which is conveyed through the turbulent, almost foaming brushwork of the foreground, where the bushes and foliage have been rendered with frenetic brushstrokes; at the same time, the feathered brushwork in the background conveys a softness lacking in Claude's works. In addition, Monet has avoided narrative, instead allowing the view, and his impression of it, to speak for itself.
While the trees to the right in Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant give a sense of formality, the one shown peeking into the composition on the left hints at the spontaneity of a snapshot, lending the painting a very different impression. Indeed, of the four works showing this view, it is only Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant that contains this element. This recalls the views that were made by other Impressionists such as Edgar Degas, who would often include unexpected, sometimes even brutal, vertical elements in his compositions. In Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant, the fact that the tree snakes out of the composition before curving back into it adds to the abrupt sense of surprise that it introduces. In fact, it recalls the compositions of some of the Japanese woodblock landscapes that Monet so adored and which he had collected for over a decade already by this time, for instance those by Utagawa Hiroshige. Indeed, the entire composition can be seen to echo some of Hiroshige's views. This apparent connection between Hiroshige and Monet is all the more pertinent in the case of Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant as it was owned by the jeweller Henri Vever, a great collector of Impressionist works whose interest in the movement had come through his own passion for Japanese art.
The palpable sense of spontaneity and freshness which Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant exudes is in part a reflection of Monet's desire to capture what appears to be a single moment in time, as the sun sets, causing the long shadow to be cast by the church. In this picture, those shadows appear longer than they do in the Columbus Museum of Art's example; by contrast, the shadows appear more pronounced in the Barber Institute's view. This lends the four views a sense of seriality, as though they were a sequence of images; it also reflects the working methods that Monet was honing during this period. Monet preferred to work outdoors, the quintessential pleinairiste - although in reality he would sometimes complete his works in his studio; this may also be why he relied on drawings such as that in the Musée Marmottan, showing the church of Varengeville. Despite sometimes taking recourse to those other techniques, Monet would brave the elements, carting around his various canvases and materials. Those canvases would often show the same view at different times and under different light effects, allowing him to switch from one to the other as the motif changed before his eyes. This was a technique that he would develop throughout his life, for instance with his views from the turn of the century showing the Thames shown from the same vantage point - the window of his room in the Savoy Hotel in London.
Monet's enthusiasm for the views he found in Normandy may have influenced his decision, the following year, to rent a house and land at Giverny; this would become his base for the rest of his life, and would allow him to sally forth on his various painterly campaigns, especially in his locality. Gradually, he would cultivate surroundings at Giverny, including his legendary gardens, which allowed him to find a constant supply of subject matter on his own doorstep. However, it is a mark of the importance of the views of Varengeville that he would return there again at the end of the following decade.
The money that Monet used to rent Giverny - he only subsequently managed to buy it - in part reflected his increasing importance. Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant featured in an exhibition which helped to seal his status as one of the premier landscape painters of his day. This was a one-man retrospective featuring fifty-six paintings from throughout Monet's career, held by his dealer Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1883. Intriguingly, the recent works from Pourville and Varengeville appear to have been the ones that garnered most attention. Initially, Monet was concerned at the lack of footfall and journalistic interest taken in the exhibition; this was not to last: there followed a flurry of lengthy articles by Philippe Burty, in La République Française, Gustave Geffroy, in La Justice, and Alfred de Lostalot, in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, for which Monet provided a drawing of Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant to be illustrated. Indeed, de Lostalot praised this picture as well as a few others: 'They are painted in subdued light, filtered by a mist-saturated sky that by and large intercepts the violet rays. The View at Rouen is one such… also his Views of Holland, his Effect of Snow at Argenteuil, his Church at Varengeville at sunset' (de Lostalot, 'Exhibition of the Works of M. Claude Monet', pp. 101-04, C. Stuckey, ed., Monet: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 1985, p. 104). Burty said of Monet, in his review: 'Amongst the Impressionists, no other is gifted with such spontaneity and such lively impressions, and no other is able to express them with as much breadth and charm' (P. Burty, 'The Landscapes of Claude Monet', pp. 98-101, ibid., p. 98).
As well as forming a part of the celebrated collection of Henri Vever, Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant was owned by the industrialist Jules-Emile Boivin, a significant collector of Impressionist works who had founded a highly successful sugar company with a cousin. The picture also passed through the hands of Durand-Ruel both soon after its execution and also later, when it appears to have been reacquired in collaboration with the dealer and collector Isidore Montaignac, who had worked with Georges Petit (who also previously owned the work). Durand-Ruel was one of the great pioneering art dealers of the modern era; he had been the trailblazer behind the idea of abandoning group exhibitions and showing one-man exhibitions, such as that of Monet in which Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant featured.
L'Église de Varengeville, soleil couchant
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED COLLECTION
Signed and dated 'Claude Monet 82' (lower right)
Claude Monet , late 19th Century, Paintings, oil, France, Impressionist, landscape
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Monet, 1883, no. 28.
Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, 4ème Exposition internationale de peinture, 1885, no. 72.
Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Tableaux par Besnard, Cazin, C. Monet.., 1899, no. 47.
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Monet, January - April 1970, no. 27.
Tokyo, Galeries Seibu, Monet, March - May 1973, no. 35; this exhibition later travelled to Kyoto Municipal Museum and Fukuoka, Akarenga Cultural Centre.
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
25½ x 31.7/8 in. (64.8 x 81 cm.)
A. de Lostalot, 'Exposition des oeuvres de M. Cl. Monet', in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1 April 1883, p. 346.
G. Dargenty, 'Exposition Internationale de Peinture', in Courrier de l'Art, Paris, 29 May 1885, no. 264.
P.E. Mangeant, 'Exposition Besnard, Cazin...', in Journal des Artistes, 19 February 1899, pp. 2-3.
A. Dalligny, 'L'Exposition de la rue de Sèze', in Le Journal des Arts, 25 February 1899.
J. Leclerq, 'Petites expositions, Galerie Georges Petit', in La Chronique des Arts, 25 February 1899, p. 70.
E. Bricon, Psychologie de l'Art, Paris, 1900, p. 301.
G. Geffroy, Claude Monet, Sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre, Paris, 1922, p. 108.
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Biographie, et catalogue raisonné, vol. II, Lausanne, 1979, no. 294, pp. 66-67 (illustrated).
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, Cologne, 1996, no. 726, pp. 270-271 (illustrated p. 270).
Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris, by whom acquired directly from the artist in 1882.
Georges Petit, Paris, by whom acquired from the above in 1883.
M. Herz, by whom acquired from the above in 1885.
Henri Vever, Paris; sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 2 February 1897, lot 81.
Durand- Ruel & I. Montaignac, Paris, by whom acquired at the above sale.
I. Montaignac, Paris, by 1899.
Jules-Émile Boivin, Paris, and thence by descent.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.