In 1880 Stevens was advised to take the sea air as a remedy for a bronchial condition allegedly caused by breathing turpentine fumes. Acting on this advice he began spending two months of each year on the Normandy coast. During these visits he painted seascapes and the hotel society of the seaside resorts. By this time his reputation was such that the dealer Georges Petit guaranteed to pay the artist 50 000 francs for his output of seascapes per season.1
The exact location of the scene in the Australian National Gallery's painting remains unknown. The seascapes exhibited by Stevens at the Salon de Mar in 1892 were painted in the Le Havre-Honfleur area of Normandy, at the mouth of the Seine, while those exhibited in May 1893 were painted at Loctudy, in the west of Brittany. The inclusion of a steamer in the Gallery's painting indicates that the more populous Normandy coast is the likely location.
Stevens' depiction of the sea by moonlight evokes the tradition of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish nocturnal landscapes and the moonlit seascapes of Joseph Vernet (1758-1836) which were then on view in the Louvre. Stevens himself owned a 'clair de lune' by Aert van der Neer (1603/4-77), as did his friend Edouard Manet (1832-83), whose own painting of a nocturnal seascape, Moonlight over Boulogne Harbour 1869 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), was in Stevens' studio when it was purchased by the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in 1872.2
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.80.