The Cliffs at Etretat, 2017

In 1868, Claude Monet, Gustave Courbet and Alexandre Dumas spent several days in the Normadie village of Étretat. Courbet painted there often along with Matisse and Whistler.  Monet became drawn to the massive cliffs and their enormous apertures and began to depict them throughout the changing seasons in over 50 paintings. There are several in the U.S. at the Metropolitan Museum in NY, The Clark Institute and Raleigh, NC.  The Musée d’Orsay owns several as well and has on display Sunset at Étretat and Rough Sea at Étretat. As I shared in my introduction post (see blog post here ) the first time I saw his Cliffs at Étretat at the Musée d’Orsay in 2005, my soul felt a connection to this idyllic shore and I longed to be there and hear the ocean beating against the rocks. Twelve years later, for our 35th wedding anniversary, my husband David made this difficult trek happen.  It was everything I dreamed it would be, and more. Upon my return, I knew this had to be my first painting to record this experience on canvas.

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Monet’s Storm at Etretat, 2005,       Musee d’Orsay
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Port d’Aval, Etretat, 2017: Our 35th Anniversary

According to Charles Chetham, Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum, describes the cliffs at Étretat: “In each of these, the sensation of movement prevails, whether in subtle, inconstant shimmer of sunlight on becalmed waters, or in the dramatic turbulence of frenzied seas, wind-shredded clouds, or tangled grass surmounting craggy prominences”.

So, how does one depict this on a canvas? Monet did this by spending many hours standing in the low tide, riding in fishing boats, sketching the cliffs and waves, then returning to his home to record these images in his paintings.  As photography was a new medium that Monet did not have privy to, he relied on memory.  Day after day, in all seasons, from different angles and positions (there are actually three prominent cliffs at Étretat  the Porte d’Aval, the Porte d’Amont and the Manneporte), he tried to capture the perfect impression.

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Monet’s Cliffs at Etretat (1885)

My first attempt at reproducing the images I saw from my visit at Étretat were taken from the photos that we took from the shore and from the top of the cliffs. I wanted to paint my impressions of the cliffs before I began to copy Monet’s.

This also happened to be my first painting lesson; quite the arduous task. Marie, my art instructor,  agreed to paint this scene as well to model it for me. Since this was my first time to paint, I had no idea what type of an artist I was.  Was I a realist? A purist who paints exactly what is seen?  An impressionist who paints what is seen rather than reproducing the exact scene? Would I prefer to paint landscapes, still life, portraits, or more modern avant garde.  I knew that I have loved Monet’s style of airy landscapes, en plein air, and a pastel palette. But I was also drawn to Van Gogh’s bold colors and thick brush strokes?  I decided to let my paintbrush guide me. Of course, as Marie is a professional landscape artist and has many years of experience with this medium, I basically followed her example. Here are some tips that I learned from my first painting lesson:

  • Divide the paper in half (horizontally and vertically) and paint above or below the line
  • Wet the paper before using watercolors as they will be absorbed easier
  • Paint on gouache or frisket on the places that are white (the crest of the waves, the shore, the cliffs)
  • Mix enough paint beforehand. If you run out of paint before an area is finished, then you have to try to match the original colors. (This is obvious in my painting as the ocean has too many different shades)
  • When watercolor painting on Kasen paper, secure the edges before painting as they will curl in the process
  • Paint light against dark, dark against light. Also pay attention to the complementary/contrasting colors
  • Painting can be multi-medium; When using watercolors, if you mess up, you can paint over the mistake with acrylics or oils. What a relief as I accidentally painted over the L’Aiguille or the Needle while painting the ocean. I then used white acrylic to correct my mistake!
  • Perspective: Objects in the foreground can be twice the height as objects in the background.

The final thing to consider when constructing a painting is “when is it finished?”  I corrected many mistakes in my version of the Cliff at Étretat and could have continued to work on this painting .  In this case, I determined that less is more!


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Cliffs at Etretat, by Jules Claire

**In my next blog post, I will be highlighting my experiences in painting Monet’s Cliffs at Étretat, Sunrise with pastels, watercolors and acrylics. You will notice that I sign J. Claire to my paintings, short for Jules Claire, the French name I used while living in Paris!

Copyright 2018 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (