During the 1870s when he was living at Argenteuil, on the outskirts of Paris, Monet made several trips back to Le Havre, where he had grown up. The city was a thriving commercial and industrial centre, and France’s most important transatlantic port, with a series of harbours and busy docks. For this picture Monet positioned himself on the wall on the inner harbour facing the city’s museum of fine arts and public library, an impressive building that had been erected in 1845.
Despite the fact that it is relatively large, the picture has the sketchy quality of Monet’s smaller canvases. Broken brushwork conveys the gentle movement of rippling water and the fragmented reflections of boats; the sails that almost obscure the architecture are hastily brushed in. A muted palette, consisting mostly of greyish blues and browns, relieved by touches of warmer orange, conjures up the atmosphere of a northern port under an overcast sky.
During the 1870s when he was living at Argenteuil on the outskirts of Paris, Monet continued his habit of making trips to the northern French coast, often visiting Le Havre, where he had grown up.
The views he painted of Le Havre in the 1860s had focused on the area of Saint-Adresse, showing the shoreline as a place frequented by fishermen and holidaymakers. But in 1873 and 1874 he turned his attention to the modern commercial port that was the main French point of entry for cargo and passengers travelling between France, northern Europe and the Americas. One of the views he painted there was Impression, Sunrise (Musée Marmottan, Paris), whose title would give rise to the term ‘Impressionism’.
For The Museum at Le Havre, Monet positioned himself on the wall on the inner harbour facing the Grand Quai, as he did for Impression, Sunrise, but facing the opposite direction, towards the city’s museum of fine arts and public library. This impressive building had been erected in 1845, but no longer exists today as it was destroyed during the Second World War. The new civic museum had not been a total success; Monet’s friend Armand Gautier complained in 1858 that ‘the town is so commercial and the museum so neglected that exhibitions are rare’.
However, those who ventured inside would have been able to see paintings by many of Monet’s contemporaries as well as old master paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture. There were also displays of work by local photographers which would have been familiar to Monet. Indeed, some contemporary photographs of the museum are taken from exactly the same viewpoint as this painting, and show the building with rows of sails in front of it. The museum had a further personal significance for Monet as the curator, Jacques-Francois Ochard, was a local artist who had given him drawing lessons.
Four sketches for the picture in a sketchbook now in the Musée Marmottan show that when Monet was considering the composition he did not greatly change the vantage point, but did experiment with different ways of configuring the sails that almost obscure the building in the final painting. He also chose not to show the ground on which he was standing, so that we have the impression of looking at the quayside as though we are on the water.
Despite the fact that it is larger than many of Monet’s pictures from the 1870s, the painting has the sketchy quality of his smaller canvases. Broken brushwork in the foreground conveys the gentle movement of rippling water and the fragmented reflections of boats. Swiftly filled in areas of colour represent oversize sails, which form abstract shapes, their sharp angles set against the arched windows of the museum and the chaotic jumble of buildings to the left. A muted palette, consisting mostly of greyish blues and browns, relieved by touches of warmer orange, conjures up the atmosphere of a northern port under an overcast sky.
This picture might have been expected to appeal to a wealthy patron from Le Havre, but it was bought by the Italian artist Giuseppe de Nittis, who exhibited alongside Monet in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1876.
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