Claude Monet's choice of the popular seaside resort of Étretat for a working holiday in late January 1883 was perhaps prompted by the region's fame as a recreational location, and was in keeping with ‘the impressionists’ interest in subject matter reflecting modern life, especially the leisure activities of the bourgeoisie. A popular haven since the 1830s for artists and writers, Étretat, on the Normandy coast, by 1883 had developed into a thriving tourist resort, celebrated for its views of three enormous natural stone arches (the Porte d'Aval, Porte d'Amont and Manneporte) and a spectacular rocky 'needle' carved from the surrounding cliffs by the ferocious action of the sea. In three short weeks Monet painted some twenty canvases, which recorded all three arches and the spiky 'needle' under varying climatic conditions.
Parisians holidaying in Étretat could party in the town's lavish casino or retire to the many luxury villas scattered nearby. Monet stayed in the Hôtel Blanquet, whose advertisements boasted that 'every public and private room looks directly onto the ocean'. The hotel was situated extremely close to the beach, and the high viewpoint of many of the canvases produced during this trip shows that Monet often sheltered indoors from the inclement weather, painting 'nature' from the establishment's windows.
Étretat was positioned directly on the beach immediately to the right of the view depicted in Monet's composition, but no indication is given here of the bustling presence of the town. The painting has been framed instead to focus upon the awesome power of nature (whose majesty is underscored by the tiny scale of the gesturing figures at the water's edge)— although signs of the relentless tourist paths beaten around Étretat remain in the heavy zigzags of the numerous walking trails that surmount the Porte d'Amont in the distance. Rough surf was not uncommon at Étretat, where the pebbled beach dropped away very steeply, close to the shore.
Text by DrTed Gott fromThe Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2004, p. 73.