Text by Geoffrey Smith
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The 1880s saw Monet at the height of his powers — he was creating some of his finest and most satisfying compositions, this being a very good example. During the decade he made many painting trips to the coast — to various locations in Normandy and to Belle Île in Brittany where he captured the rugged beauty of the coastline of that region and relished the challenge of the rapidly changing light and weather. In 1884 he visited Bordighera on the Mediterranean near the border with Italy and in 1888 he returned to the Mediterranean, this time to Antibes. Here the challenge was different — how to capture the intense light and colour of the south.
The light seems to assail you from this canvas; the beauty of its colours besieges your eyes. The picture encapsulates the experience of the Mediterranean — Monet pins down the very essence of that special light using a palette which matches the dominant tones of the region — utilising colours which he had rarely used in his ‘northern’ work. ‘It is so beautiful here,’ Monet wrote, ‘so bright, so full of light. One is afloat in blue air. It is awe inspiring.’ The effect of shimmering light playing on a gently rippling sea is achieved by the application of a multitude of brushstrokes each loaded with subtly different colour. The sea is made up of juxtaposed strokes of dark and light blue, green, violet and white, all of which miraculously coalesce into as perfect an approximation of moving water as can be achieved in paint. It is typical of Monet that it all looks so effortless. But a recent X-ray examination has revealed that the work went through many metamorphoses before it arrived at this final perfection. In particular, the tree was moved somewhat to the left (its central position set against the sea and distant hills is reminiscent of Japanese prints reminding us that, like many of his Impressionist colleagues, Monet was an admirer of Japanese art).
It is in the 1880s that Monet started to use several canvases when painting at a particular site. He would change from one unfinished canvas to another as the quality of the light altered throughout the day, gradually building up finished pictures each reflecting particular conditions. This working method led to his creation of the great series paintings of the 1890s but his compulsive efforts to capture on canvas every conceivable light effect were a lifelong obsession. As Cézanne famously observed, Monet is ‘only an eye, but God what an eye’.
1888 Émile Bernard: Madeleine in the Bois d’Amour, Paris, Musée d’Orsay
1888 James Ensor: The Entry of Christ into Brussels; Antwerp, Royal Museum of Fine Arts