Christie's - November 7th, 2012 - Lot 16
Christie's New York, Rockefeller Plaza
Sale 2594 Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale
7 November 2012
Estimate $1,800,000 - $2,500,000
Price Realized $2,378,500
Bloc de rochers à Port-Goulphar
signed and dated 'Claude Monet 87' (lower left)
oil on canvas
25¾ x 25¾ in. (65.4 x 65.4 cm.)
Painted in 1887
Gustave Geffroy, Paris.
Anon. sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 2 June 1927, lot 32.
Galeries Simonson, Paris (acquired from the above).
Bourgeat et Cie., Paris (circa 1930).
The Lefevre Gallery (Alex. Reid & Lefevre, Ltd.), London (1965).
Stephen Hahn Gallery, New York (by 1968).
Dr. and Mrs. Richard W. Levy, New Orleans (acquired from the above, 1968).
Private collection, Montgomery, Alabama (1978).
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2000.
G. Geffroy, Salon de 1887, Paris, 1887.
G. Geffroy, Claude Monet, sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre, Paris, 1922, p. 192 (illustrated in color).
M. Malingue, Claude Monet, Paris, 1943, p. 117, illustrated).
L. Rossi Botolatto, L'opera completa di Claude Monet, Milan, 1972, p. 107, no. 307 (illustrated).
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Lausanne, 1979, vol. II, p. 202, no. 1096.
T. Reff, Modern Art in Paris, Two-Hundred Catalogues of the Major Exhibitions Reproduced in Facsimile in Forty-Seven Volumes, New York, 1981.
J. Vilain, Claude Monet--Auguste Rodin, Centenaire de l'exposition de 1889, exh. cat., Musée Rodin, Paris, 1989, p. 87, no. 83 (illustrated).
D. Delouche, Monet à Belle-Île, Paris, 1992, p. 79 (illustrated).
D. Wildenstein, Monet, Catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1996, vol. III, p. 416, no. 1096 (illustrated in color, p. 415).
Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Exposition internationale de peinture et de sculpture, sixième année, May-June 1887, p. 16, no. 80.
Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Monet--Rodin, 1889, no. 83 (dated 1886).
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Vincent van Gogh en zijn tijdgenooten, September-November 1930, p. 69, no. 227 (titled Goulphar (Belle-Isle-en-Mer)).
London, The Lefevre Gallery (Alex. Reid & Lefevre, Ltd.), 19th and 20th Century French Paintings, October-November 1965, p. 19, no. 12 (illustrated; titled Port Goulphar, Belle-Isle en Mer).
New York, Steven Hahn Gallery, Cliffs and the Sea, 1968.
New York, Richard Feigen & Co., Claude Monet, October-November 1969, p. 45, no. 24 (illustrated; titled Port Goulphar, Belle-Ile-en-Mer).
Kunstmuseum Basel (on extended loan, 1972-1975).
New Orleans Museum of Fine Art, New Orleans Collects, November 1971-January 1972, no. 164 (illustrated; titled Port Goulphar-Belle Isle sur Mer).
Philadelphia Museum of Art (on extended loan, summer 2001).
Bloc de rochers à Port-Goulphar was painted on Belle-Île, a rocky, storm-swept island off the coast of Brittany where Monet worked from September to November of 1886. The trip to Belle-Île came as Impressionism was facing its greatest challenge to date. At the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition earlier the same year, Seurat had stunned the Parisian art world by exhibiting the monumental Dimanche à la Grande Jatte (de Hauke, no. 162), a veritable manifesto of his pioneering Neo-Impressionist technique. With its emphasis on structure and science, the canvas represented nothing less than a direct assault on the basic premises of Impressionism and was immediately recognized in the critical press as heralding a new avant-garde idiom. Unlike Pissarro, who had been won over to the Neo-Impressionism camp the previous year, and Renoir, who had been working since 1881 in a strongly classicizing vein, Monet remained a dedicated proponent of Impressionism, and he took up Seurat's challenge with aplomb. Paul Tucker has written, "In 1886, he must have realized that he was truly on his own and that if Impressionism was going to continue to be a viable style equal to the likes of Seurat's pseudo-scientific method, it was up to him to prove it" (Claude Monet, Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 127).
Immediately after refusing to join the eighth Impressionist exhibition, Monet produced his first large-scale figure paintings in more than a decade, two portraits of a woman with a parasol en plein air (Wildenstein, nos. 1076-1077). With their painterly bravura, these imposing canvases represent a strictly Impressionist alternative to the impersonal, systematic touch of Seurat's Grande Jatte and were intended as a forceful affirmation of Impressionism's continued vitality. Monet then painted the very first self-portrait of his career, a haunting and deeply introspective painting that bears testament to the weightiness of his position in 1886 (Wildenstein, no. 1078; fig. 1). Finally, the paint on these canvases barely dry, he set off for Belle-Île, the most dramatic and challenging of all the sites that he would paint over the course of the 1880s. With this trip, Tucker has argued, "Monet was out to prove his worth as the foremost exponent of modernism and... to prove Impressionism's superior capacity to exploit color, describe particular climatic conditions, use paint in novel ways, and reveal fundamental truths about art and the world" (Monet in the '90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, pp. 23 and 25).
When Monet arrived at Belle-Île in mid-September 1886, he encountered the wildest terrain that he had ever seen. The shoreline consisted of a sheered-off mass of volcanic rock that dropped precipitously to the swirling surf, punctuated by fantastic rock formations that had been left behind when sections of the island collapsed into the water. Monet found lodging at Kervilahouen, a village of about twelve dwellings on the west side of the island, near a stretch of coastline known as La Mer Terrible. "It's well-named," the artist wrote to Alice Hoschedé. "Not a tree for ten kilometers, some rocks and wonderful grottoes; it's sinister, diabolical, but superb" (quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., 1995, p. 129). Painting in this locale proved to be an extraordinary challenge. Monet hired an ex-lobsterman as a porter, who fashioned a waterproof slicker to protect the artist from the elements and helped him to lash down his canvas, easel, and protective parasol against overpowering winds. Despite such adverse conditions, Monet was captivated by the natural drama of Belle-Île, writing to Alice, "It was a joy for me to see the sea in all its fury; it was like a drug, and I was so carried away that today I was devastated to see the weather calm down so quickly" (quoted in V. Russell, Monet's Landscapes, London, 2000, p. 68). Although he originally intended to stay on Belle-Île for only a fortnight, he ended up extending his trip until the end of November and bringing back to Giverny nearly forty canvases.
The present canvas depicts a mass of rough-hewn rocks at Port-Goulphar, a small harbor not far from Monet's lodgings on Belle-Île. The craggy, scarred rock formations occupy almost the entire surface of the canvas; they push inexorably upward toward the raised horizon, threatening to swallow up the sea, to block out the sun. In contrast to the refined limestone cliffs that Monet had painted at Etretat, these are encrusted with green and russet-colored flora, lending them an exotic, animate quality that contrasts with the preternatural stillness of the sea and sky. The painting is one of a pair of very similar views that Monet made of this particular cluster of rocks (compare Wildenstein, no. 1097); the present version, however, is painted on a nearly square canvas rather than a horizontal one, heightening the sense of spatial compression. Monet also painted a trio of canvases that depict Port-Goulphar from a slightly different vantage point, with more of the sea visible (Wildenstein, nos. 1093-1095; fig. 2). He explained to Alice, "I well realize that in order to really paint the sea, one must view it every day, at every time of day and in the same place in order to get to know its life at that particular place; so I am redoing the same motifs as many as four or even six times" (quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., 1989, p. 31).
Port-Goulphar was one of several motifs on Belle-Île that Monet subjected to this sort of systematic study, anticipating the serial practice that would become his hallmark in the next decade. Although he had painted various motifs more than once prior to this campaign (most notably, at the Gare Saint-Lazare in 1877), he had never restricted his compositional options so sharply. Of the thirty-eight views of Belle-Île that Monet brought home, thirty-five include only earth, sea, and sky, and several are near replicas of one another. These limitations, however, seem to have forced the artist to be even more precise in his description of natural phenomena--the movement of the sea, the play of light across the water, the shadows and reflections of the jagged rocks--and thus formed part of his strategy to showcase his own abilities in the face of mounting competition and to highlight the subtlety of his Impressionist style.
Following his return to Giverny in late November 1886, Monet spent the remainder of the winter completing the views of Belle-Île in his studio (hence the date of 1887 on the present canvas). In May 1887, he exhibited eight of them together at the Sixth Annual International Exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit. Among these was a canvas that the critic Gustave Geffroy (who, by chance, had been on Belle-Île at the same time as Monet and thereafter became one of the artist's staunchest supporters) described in his review of the show as "bare hillocks, yellowed and reddened by the autumn vegetation"--either the present painting, which Geffroy himself would later acquire, or the closely related composition (quoted in D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, p. 416). Monet's decision to exhibit so many paintings from a single campaign marked a radical departure from previous practice. Tucker has written, "He was obviously more confident about them as a group than any other suite of paintings from the 1880s, despite, if not because of, their proximity to each other" (op. cit., 1989, p. 29). His strategy paid off, and the reviews were the most enthusiastic that Monet had ever received. Joris-Karl Huysmans called him "the most significant landscape painter of modern times," while Alfred de Lostalot proclaimed, "You have to admire these feverish canvases, for despite their intense color and rough touch, they are so perfectly disciplined that they easily emit a feeling for nature in an impression filled with grandeur" (quoted in ibid., pp. 29-30).
Two years later, in the summer of 1889, Monet included twelve paintings from Belle-Île in another major exhibition, this time a retrospective with Rodin at Georges Petit. Once again, either the present painting or its variant was among the featured canvases. The exhibition, which featured nearly 150 paintings by Monet, was the largest gathering of the artist's work to date and was timed to coincide with the Universal Exposition, when visitors from around the world flocked to Paris. Tucker has written, "Monet invested a great deal in this exhibition, for good reason... This was going to be the definitive Monet show" (ibid., pp. 55-56). More than half of the works that Monet contributed had been painted in the previous three years and showcased his emerging serial method. In addition to the twelve canvases from Belle-Île, the exhibition included seventeen paintings from his campaign at Antibes in 1888 and fourteen views of the Creuse Valley from the opening months of 1889. The show was a resounding critical success and attracted many interested buyers, reinforcing Monet's claim to the leadership of French painting. Writing in L'Art moderne, Octave Maus concluded, "In this superb exhibition there is not a lapse nor a hesitation... Nature has never been rendered with more intensity and truth" (quoted in ibid., p. 59).