Claude Monet’s colorful painting Fishing Boats at Étretat, 1885—the only work by the artist in SAM’s collection—will be the focus of an exhibition that considers the artist’s engagement with Étretat, a seaside village in Normandy known for its stunning chalk cliffs. During a difficult period in his life, Monet traveled there alone and painted over 80 works, immersing himself in the place and committing himself to the process of painting in all kinds of conditions. He went there in the off-season, interested not in the summer tourist scene but in the daily fishing activity and the timeless rock formations. SAM’s focused exhibition will feature 11 works by Monet, plus contemporaneous paintings by other artists who worked at the same site.
On arrival, Monet disparaged the famous cliffs as “stupid motifs,” but he soon responded to their magnetism. He painted them from multiple angles, from above and below and near and far, in rain and sunshine, at low and high tide, and often offset by bobbing boats nearby. When the weather was bad, neither the artist nor the fishermen could venture out, resulting in images of boats on the beach, often painted from inside Monet’s hotel.
The Étretat paintings are associated with growing tensions in the artist’s life and career during the 1880s. The artist was chafing under pressure from his dealer to produce attractive, marketable paintings. The physical demands of painting outdoors in changeable weather were exhausting him. And Monet was battling an ever-present loneliness and anxiety over his unresolved relationship with Alice Hoschedé, the wife of his patron and surrogate mother to his children. The exhibition and accompanying publication will address these issues as well as the artist’s experience of place, which will also be communicated through 19th-century photography and popular material such as postcards and other ephemera.