The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset, was painted in the early months of 1883, a time Monet would always remember with unease. The painting looks out to sea at the Porte d’Aval arch overlapping Aiguille, a tall rock spire. Next to them the dark orange sun like a burning coal, is set in a patch of deep purple clouds.
The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset
While sunlight sparkles from so many of Claude Monet’s Étretat paintings, this is the only one to feature the sun. It was this painting that bought the forensic astronomers to Étretat. They were pretty sure they could tell us a secret about it that until then only Monet could know.
The forensic astronomers
A team led by astronomer and physics professor Donald Olson of Texas State University travelled to Normandy in August 2012. Their mission was as Donald says, to find out if they could “use the dramatic rocks in the landscape and the position of the setting sun to determine where and when, specifically, Monet created this beautiful masterpiece?”
Applying scientific theory to art
“Most people see liberal arts on one side and sciences on the other, but I get to break those barriers down,” Olson says, “we like to use astronomy to show students how science can solve real-world puzzles.”
At Etretat the research team headed for the beach to find the exact position where the Aiguille appeared to touch the d’Aval arch, and made extensive topographic measurements.
Donald’s team discovered Monet was standing far along the opposite end of Étretat beach, 425 yards from the Porte d’Amont under an overhanging cliff when he painted The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset.
Knowing Monet was in Étretat in February 1883, they then used planetarium software to compare the modern sky to that of the 19th century. As their visit was in the summer the sun was in a very different position, but the waxing crescent moon was a useful stand-in. By determining an astronomical coordinate called declination for the moon and stars, they were able to calculate the sun would have set along that path between 3 and 7 February 1883.
Letters and tides
The team then examined weather records and tide tables from February 1883 and letters Monet wrote from Étretat during his stay. The letters revealed on 3 February Monet was painting from Jambourg beach, between Le Manneport arch and d’Aval. On 4 February the day was taken up with a visit from his brother.
Monet took a close interest in the tides and records confirm they did not match the painting on 6 February 1883. On 7 February the weather was stormy.
All indications were that Monet painted The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset on 5 February but at what time?
And the time was…
The Texas State researchers then used the height of the Aiguille spire and the altitude of the sun above the horizon in the painting to calculate the exact time. Donald says;
“We were able to determine the month, day, hour and precise minute–accurate to plus or minus one minute–when Monet was inspired by that beautiful scene,”
“Monet observed this sunset on February 5, 1883 at 4:53 p.m. local mean time.”
Science and art
“You can’t ruin a painting’s mystique through technical analysis,” Olson said in a 2009 interview with Smithsonian Magazine. “It still has the same emotional impact.”
But what science cannot reveal is the heart of the artist. During those weeks in Étretat Monet’s heart was deeply troubled.
Monet’s stay in Étretat, 1883
From 31 January to 21 February 1883, Claude Monet was staying at the Hotel Blanquet. He was due to exhibit new work in March at a one man exhibition in the new Durand-Ruel gallery on boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris.
Monet planned to paint the shifting seas and sculptural arches of Étretat’s blue shadowed cliffs, all the while desperately waiting to hear from Alice Hoschedé.
Claude and Alice were in love. Alice had helped him during his wife Camille’s illness and comforted him when she died. He could rely on practical, sensible Alice and Claude was a man who liked to be looked after. They could be a perfect match with Alice managing their children and lives while he painted. If only she would settle the situation with her husband, Ernest Hoschedé.
Now bankrupt, Ernest lived mostly in Paris. Monet and Alice lived in Plessy. However Ernest was proving unwilling to give up his unfaithful wife and the children that were mostly his. Monet wanted her to break with Ernest once and for all, he could not be sure until she did that Alice would not go back to her husband. While Monet was in Étretat, Ernest was due to visit Alice.
The situation distracted Monet and he wrote pleading to Alice “as far as I’m concerned, you need have no fears, I think of you constantly, you can be sure of by love, be brave”. In another letter “I’ve been in such a state that I am completely overwhelmed by it”…
“I feel very strongly that I love you more than you imagine, more than I thought possible”.
Eventually Alice responded with a short telegram, asking Monet to come back to Poissy as soon as possible. Monet convinced himself the news was bad “I have read and re-read each line 20 times over… my eyes are swimming with tears, can it really be true? Must I really get used to the idea of losing you?”
“I am so very, very sad…”
A very worried Monet left Étretat on 21 February 1883. In three weeks he had not finished a single painting.
The forensic astronomers are probably right in their calculations, it is quite likely Monet was standing on the freezing Étretat beach on 5 February 1883 as the sun set. But he completed The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset somewhere completely different. By then he was assured of Alice’s love. Later that year the couple moved to Giverny.
Quotes from Monets letters from the excellent book ‘The private lives of the Impressionists’ by Sue Roe.
More about forensic astronomer’s visit to Etretat from Texas state.
The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset is on display at the North Carolina Museum of Art.