Like its more famous cousin Impression, Sunrise (fig. 1), to which the naming of the Impressionist movement is legendarily credited, this picture of the French port of Le Havre is among the most radically sketchlike paintings of Monet’s early career. Painted in the spring of 1873, it offers an easterly view toward the rising sun. Having yet to fully penetrate and dispel the early morning mist, the light of the rising sun to the east is palely reflected in the pinks, yellows, and oranges of the sky above and water below, which glimmers against the cool, muffled blues, purples, and greens that dominate and unify the scene. In the foreground appears the silhouette of a small sailing vessel, with two men on deck, quietly setting out to sea. Off to the right is a small skiff with three more figures, mere quavering dabs of paint. Farther behind one can vaguely discern the ships still moored along the quays of Le Havre’s outer harbor, or avant port. Visible on the north side in the near left is the ghostly form of a steamboat, the smoke from its main funnel partially obscuring the masts and rigging of the clipper ship behind. One can distinguish numerous other sailing ships farther back on the opposite, south, side of the harbor. Still enshrouded in the thick, low-lying fog that Monet has denoted through broad, fluid strokes of purple and blue, the ships’ superstructures are suggested only by a few vertical, horizontal, and diagonal brushstrokes, tentatively scumbled. The mood is hushed. The port is only just stirring.
Le Havre was a deeply personal site for Monet. A native of the city, he spent much of his youth in the area, and both his father and uncle derived their livelihoods from commercial activities related to the port. Together with the fishing port of Honfleur on the other side of the Seine estuary and various nearby sites along the Normandy coast, Le Havre became a focal point of Monet’s early practice as a painter of marines, the genre upon which he decided to stake his career in emulation of such painters as Eugène Boudin (1824–1898), Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819–1891), and Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), all of whom painted on the Normandy coast during the 1860s.1 Monet returned to Le Havre repeatedly during the 1860s, by which time he had settled in Paris, and the port furnished him with the subject of two major paintings he submitted to the 1868 Salon. One, now lost and known only from caricatures and a few written descriptions, represented a large, three-masted ship being towed by a steamboat as it prepares to head out to sea, and the other depicts figures promenading on the port’s jetty, whipped by the ocean waves and wind.2 Although the latter painting was refused by the Salon jury in Paris, it helped garner Monet a silver medal when it was exhibited in Le Havre later that same year on the occasion of a large international maritime exhibition.3 In that context, the painting may well have stood as local, patriotic testimony to the vitality of the port.
Reaffirming this vitality may have been especially crucial to Monet in the wake of France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent civil trauma of the Paris Commune. Like many others, Monet spent those terrible months (September 1870 to May 1871) in London, returning to France via Holland and settling outside of Paris in Argenteuil. Between 1872 and 1874, he made several trips up the Seine to Le Havre and produced at least ten paintings of the port. There are nocturnal, morning, and midday scenes, with weather conditions alternately clear and foggy, rainy or sunny. Monet depicted both the outer and the inner harbors, focusing on the ships in the water or panning out to take in the bustling human activity on the quays as well as the densely packed architecture of the surrounding city. Presenting a wide variety of vantage points, evoking different times of day and the various activities of the port, these pictures constitute a kind of collective portrait of the site, anticipating Monet’s later, increasingly more focused, series paintings. That Monet chose to depict Le Havre at this historical moment is suggestive. Paul Tucker has argued that he was responding to a general, postwar call for national revitalization by drawing hopeful attention to the commercial and industrial strength of France.4 Le Havre, as James Rubin has stressed, was the busiest and most modern port in the country, moving millions of tons of goods and handling thousands of ships annually. It was the principal port for cross-channel and transatlantic shipping, and it also had a strong manufacturing sector in shipbuilding. Its activities were, moreover, relatively unaffected by the war, so it was readily available as an optimistic emblem of prosperity in the troubled aftermath, particularly since France had lost the important industrial centers in the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany.5 Indeed, Monet’s paintings of Le Havre coincided in date with France’s impressive economic surge, which allowed France to pay an enormous indemnity to Germany by September 1873.
Whatever its subject matter’s emotional or patriotic resonance for Monet, Sunrise was a resolutely modern seascape painting, one that broke from, even as it recalls, a strong French tradition of port scenes, from Claude Lorrain’s idealizing visions of the seventeenth century to Joseph Vernet’s more documentary Ports of France series in the eighteenth century. Le Havre was a decidedly nontouristic site, and it was the most modern French port Monet had painted to date. Ocean-going steam and sailing vessels vied in equal numbers there, in contrast to the more quaint fishing port of Honfleur, which had commanded Monet’s attention in the 1860s, or the declining port of Rouen inland along the Seine, which Monet had painted in 1872.6 Le Havre offered Monet an emphatically modern urban-industrial landscape, in the painting of which he attempted to harmonize visually the new and the old, the natural and the man-made, finding picturesque atmospheric effects in the commingling of mist, steam, fog, and smoke.
In his pursuit of this modern landscape vision, Monet was prepared by his 1870–71 stay in London, where he painted a number of views of the Thames, the foremost commercial-industrial waterway of modern Europe. Some of these pictures directly anticipate elements of Monet’s Le Havre paintings, particularly in the mixture of vessel types, a heightened attention to the atmospheric effects of industrial pollution, and an increased sketchiness.7 It is not surprising that at least one critic casually mistook Monet’s Impression, Sunrise for a view of the Thames when it was exhibited in 1874.8
Other painters of the Thames also seem to have had a discernible impact on Monet’s Le Havre paintings. The unified tonality of pictures like the Getty Sunrise, the liquid swathes of paint conveying atmosphere and marking the shadowy silhouettes of ships, and the general lack of definition suggest that Monet had encountered James McNeill Whistler’s seascapes and nocturnes. The two painters may have met first in Paris in the mid-1860s, and they likely made contact in London during Monet’s respite there. Monet certainly would have had occasion to see Whistler’s work at the dealer Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris in January 1873.9
Paintings like the Getty marine and Impression, Sunrise have become synonymous with the Impressionist aesthetic. At the time of the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, however, their radically sketchlike technique was the exception rather than the norm. It is not to be forgotten that alongside Impression, Sunrise, Monet also exhibited a larger, much more detailed picture, Fishing Boats Leaving the Port of Le Havre (fig. 2), which offers a wide, daytime view of the teeming harbor, the rain-soaked quay, and the surrounding city.10 Monet thus showcased two poles of his production in what must have been a calculated move to advertise the revolutionary modernity of his project on the one hand and to appeal to the broadest possible segment of viewers on the other (in addition, of course, to highlighting his attentiveness to different weather conditions and times of day at the same site). Although Impressionist painters are commonly credited with breaking down the last remaining boundaries between sketch and finished work, they still distinguished between different categories of painting and the degrees of finish associated with each.11 Monet’s more fully elaborated and descriptive pictures like Fishing Boats Leaving the Port of Le Havre were generally geared more to public exhibition and sale through dealers, while his more informally sketchy works catered less to the market (they too would sell to enthusiastic collectors, but for lower sums).12 Falling into the latter category, the Getty marine is distinguished by its sense of improvisation. Monet painted it broadly, in large brushstrokes, giving the impression that it took very few sessions to complete. The narrow range of hues, as Richard Brettell has observed, meant that Monet could work quickly, wet-in-wet, without risking unpleasant color mixtures.13 Such works were given the designation “Impression” because, being much less finished than his other works, they “couldn’t really pass for a view of Le Havre,” as Monet is reported to have said in an 1898 interview.14 Fishing Boats Leaving the Port of Le Havre, with its title clearly identifying the site, could evidently pass for such a view.
There has been some debate as to whether the Getty marine or the much more well-known painting in the Musée Marmottan was the one shown in the landmark 1874 exhibition in Nadar’s studio on the boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The catalogue simply lists the picture as Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), offering no dimensions, provenance information, or description.15 Contemporary journalistic reviews of the exhibition, including the infamously satirical lampoon of Impression, Sunrise by Louis Leroy in Le charivari, also do not provide any specific account.16 Acting on a suggestion of Daniel Wildenstein, John Rewald argued in 1961 that the Getty painting, then in a private French collection, was the one exhibited in 1874, citing a description given by Monet in the 1898 interview mentioned above: “I had something I painted from my window in Le Havre: the sun in the fog and in the foreground some masts sticking up.”17 The mention of masts in the foreground corresponds more closely to the Getty painting than to the one in the Musée Marmottan. Rewald also noted that the reddish sun in the latter seems to be setting rather than rising; indeed, that painting was acquired as Impression, Sunset by the Romanian collector Georges de Bellio at the 1878 Hoschedé sale.18 Furthermore, since the de Bellio/Marmottan picture was shown in the 1879 Impressionist exhibition, Rewald suggested that it was unlikely that Monet would have shown the same picture five years earlier, as he was not in the habit of thus repeating himself.19
Other evidence, however, suggests that the Marmottan painting is indeed the work in question, in keeping with received wisdom. Several sources close to Monet identify it as such. As Remus Niculescu noted in 1970, Monet’s friend and biographer, Gustave Geffroy, who was also a close friend of de Bellio’s, identified the collector’s picture in an 1893 article, writing: “Monet unintentionally provided the name [Impressionism], when he exhibited an ébauche (now in M. de Bellio’s collection) with the title Impression, a sunset on the water.”20 Paul Durand-Ruel also remembered the painting in the 1874 exhibition as a “seascape with sunset,” which likewise points to the Marmottan painting.21 Another reliable source, the critic Théodore Duret, one of the first to defend the Impressionists, describes the painting as follows in his History of the Impressionist Painters, published in 1906: “He exhibited five [paintings], one of which had the title Impression, Sunrise, a view taken in a port. Boats on the water, lightly indicated, appear through a transparent mist brightened by the red sun,”22 this last detail referring clearly to the Marmottan painting.23 With regard to Rewald’s objection that this work depicts a sunset rather than a sunrise and therefore could not have been the one shown in 1874, it may be countered that Monet did not specify the time of day depicted. As he recalled in 1898: “They wanted to know its title for the catalogue, [since] it couldn’t really pass for a view of Le Havre. I replied, ‘Use Impression.’ Someone derived Impressionism from it and that’s when the fun began.”24 If Monet only supplied “Impression” as the title, it is possible that the editor of the catalogue-checklist, Edmond Renoir (the brother of the painter) may have casually added “sunrise” as a description.25
- Scott C. Allan
Written 2008, revised 2012
- As early as 1859, Monet recognized seascape painting as a niche to be cultivated. In a letter of June 3, 1859, to Boudin, Monet commented on the 1859 Salon, noting, “les peintres de marines manquent totalement, et c’est pour vous un chemin qui vous mènerait loin.” See Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Biographie et catalogue raisonné, 5 vols. (Lausanne: La Bibliothèque des arts, 1974–1991), vol. 1, p. 419, letter 2. ↩
- See Daniel Wildenstein, Monet, or the Triumph of Impressionism, 4 vols. (Cologne: Taschen, 1996), vol. 2, pp. 47–48, no. 89; pp. 55–56, no. 109. ↩
- Paul Hayes Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 36. ↩
- Paul Tucker, “The First Impressionist Exhibition and Monet’s ‘Impression, Sunrise’: A Tale of Timing, Commerce, and Patriotism,” Art History 7, no. 4 (December 1984), pp. 465–76. ↩
- See James H. Rubin, Impressionism and the Modern Landscape: Productivity, Technology, and Urbanization from Manet to Van Gogh (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), pp. 62, 65. ↩
- Ibid., 61–62. ↩
- Ibid., 59–61. ↩
- Ernest Chesneau, “À côté du Salon: II. Le plein air: Exposition du boulevard des Capucines,” Paris-Journal, May 7, 1874, p. 2: “Forcé de mesurer l’espace ici, je ne m’arrête point devant l’Impression (soleil levant sur la Tamise).” Reprinted in Ruth Berson, ed., The New Painting: Impressionism, 1874–1886. Documentation. Volume 1. Reviews (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with University of Washington Press, 1996), p. 18. ↩
- John House, “Tinted Steam: Turner and Impressionism,” in Turner Whistler Monet, exh. cat. Katharine Lochnan et al. (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, with Tate Publishing, 2004), p. 40. See also Joel Isaacson, Claude Monet: Observation and Reflection (Oxford: Phaidon, 1978), p. 204, under no. 39. ↩
- Wildenstein 1996 (note 2), vol. 2, p. 126, no. 296. ↩
- See John House, Impressionism: Paint and Politics (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), pp. 53–55. ↩
- Whereas the relatively finished view of a section of Le Havre’s inner harbor, the Basin du Commerce (Wildenstein 1996 [note 2], vol. 2, p. 126, no. 294), sold to collector H. Rouart in 1875 for 200 francs, the Getty painting (Wildenstein 1996 [note 2], vol. 2, p. 113, no. 262), despite being the larger canvas, sold to the same collector at the same sale for only 175 francs. See Merete Bodelsen, “Early Impressionist Sales, 1874–94, in the Light of Some Unpublished ‘procès verbaux,’” The Burlington Magazine 110, no. 783 (June 1968), p. 335, nos. 3, 8. Wildenstein incorrectly gives the sale price of the Getty marine as 75 francs. ↩
- See Richard R. Brettell, Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860–1890, exh. cat. (Williamstown: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, with Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 26, 126. ↩
- Maurice Guillemot, “Claude Monet,” La revue illustrée 24, no. 7 (March 15, 1898), unpaginated: “ça ne pouvait vraiment pas passer pour une vue du Havre: je répondis: ‘Mettez Impression.’” ↩
- See Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. Première exposition, 1874 … Catalogue, exh. cat. (Paris: Imprimerie Alcan-Lévy, 1874), p. 15, no. 98. Reprinted in Berson 1996 (note 8), p. 6. ↩
- The documented reviews can be found in Berson 1996 (note 8), pp. 9–43. ↩
- Quoted in Guillemot 1898 (note 14): “J’avais envoyé une chose faite au Havre, de ma fenêtre, du soleil dans la buée et au premier plan quelques mâts de navires pointant.” See John Rewald, The History of Impressionism, rev. ed. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1961), p. 339n20. ↩
- See Bodelsen 1968 (note 12), pp. 339, 340, no. 55. ↩
- Rewald 1961 (note 17), p. 339n20. The picture, identified as belonging to M. de Bellio in the 1879 catalogue (no. 146), was given the title Effet de brouillard, impression. See Berson 1996 (note 8), p. 206. ↩
- Gustave Geffroy, “L’Impressionnisme,” Revue encyclopedique 3, no. 73 (December 15, 1893), column 1221: “C’est Monet qui a fourni l’enseigne, sans le vouloir, en exposant une ébauche (aujourd’hui chez M. de Bellio) sous le titre d’Impression, un coucher de soleil sur l’eau,” (cited in Remus Niculescu, “Georges de Bellio, l’ami des Impressionnistes [II],” Paragone, no. 249 [November 1970], p. 63). ↩
- See Lionello Venturi, “Mémoires of Paul Durand-Ruel,” in The Archives of Impressionism II (Paris and New York: Durand-Ruel Éditeurs, 1939), p. 200: “Une marine au soleil couchant (A Seascape with Sunset) also appeared in the catalogue and was titled Impression. With the aim of embarrassing the Impressionist circle, the press appropriated the title and invented the word ‘impressionist,’ the name by which the group is still known.” ↩
- Théodore Duret, Histoire des peintres impressionnistes, 3rd ed. (Paris: H. Floury, 1922), p. 16, “Il en exposait cinq, dont l’une avait pour titre: Impression, soleil levant, une vue prise dans un port. Des bateaux sur l’eau, légèrement indiqués, apparaissaient au travers d’une buée transparente, qu’éclairait le soleil rouge.” ↩
- Anne Dayez points to Duret’s testimony in Impressionism: A Centenary Exhibition, exh. cat. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974), p. 152, under no. 28. ↩
- Quoted in Guillemot 1898 (note 14), “On me demande le titre pour le catalogue, ça ne pouvait vraiment pas passer pour une vue du Havre: je répondis: ‘Mettez Impression.’ On en fit impressionisme et les plaisanteries s’épanouirent.” ↩
- See Dayez 1974 (note 23), p. 152. ↩