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Group: Forces of Nature
Artist: Claude MONET
Title: Cliff walk at Pourville
Date Made: 1882
Lender: Art Institute of Chicago
Credit Line: Mr and Mrs Larned Coburn Memorial Collection digital image © 2000 The Art Institute of Chicago. All Rights Reserved
Monet owned Hiroshige’s triptych, Evening view of eight famous sites at Kanazawa, and two sheets from another Hiroshige triptych Mountains and rivers of the Kiso Road. In these works the Japanese artist has evoked vast space. Both have a grandeur of scale and an almost unearthly calm that suggests the indifference of nature to the tiny human constructions and activities that accent their surfaces. Monet’s growing interest in painting the grand and impersonal forces of nature has something in common with these works. His coastal paintings of the early 1880s still refer to human presence: two women venture to the edge of the precipice in Cliff walk at Pourville; the crests of the wave race to the coast, while the wind pulls at the dresses, fills the sails and sends clouds scurrying across the sky. There are similarities in the intersecting forces of rearing cliffs and sails on the horizontal stretch of sea far below in Hiroshige’s Yui, Satta Pass.
Many of Monet’s coastal paintings contain no human presence. Painting thus became a relationship between the painter and nature rather than a depiction of human activities in nature. This relationship suggests that of the literati who escaped society and established themselves in tiny huts on the mountains or above the sea to contemplate nature. There was a growing affinity between Monet’s marines and literati paintings, with their vast misty distances, precipitous cliffs, great stretches of water and cabins nestling at the base of a precipice or suspended over a void. The prosaic customs officer’s cabin — one of thirteen paintings by Monet on this motif — makes an ironic contrast with the contemplative role of the pavilions of the literati. Nevertheless, Monet’s use of calligraphic brushstrokes to represent the cabin, the waves racing to the shore and the winds whipping up the grasses, suggest that the man-made structure too is part of a nature that is ceaselessly mobile, continuously changing and completely alive.
Monet could have found even more telling representations of almost infinite space in kakemono, the hanging scrolls, which were now numerous in Paris.25 He is said to have owned one himself, but it is no longer at Giverny, and cannot be identified. In Ippo’s Landscape. Mountains and lake scenery in moonlight, rocks, cliffs and peaks rear up on the left side of the painting. Space is suggested not by consistent perspective but by the superimposition of one sharp shape against the next. The composition keeps the eye in constant movement: it is drawn down to the sea at the base of the painting; swings upward to explore the jagged rocks of the headland, behind which it discovers a pavilion; it seeks to penetrate the clouds that veil the next bay; then climbs up the sharp-edged cliffs and rises to the pale peaks beyond, or falls to the hazy bay below. Monet’s paintings of the coast embody a similar mobility of vision, and have similar compositions based on the interweaving of rearing cliffs or jagged rocks, atmospheric haze and water.
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