Why did this Monet painting suddenly start appearing under a different name? Was it a mistake? Formerly Étretat: The Beach and the Falaise d'Amont, why are online posts calling it Étretat: The Beach with the Eastern Rock Arch? And where's the arch?
I wasn't familiar with this particular Monet when I came across it recently on social media under the title Étretat: The Beach and the Eastern Rock Arch. Examining the image closely, I was unable to detect an arch. Perhaps, I thought, that rocky outcrop at the far end of the beach is considered an "arch" by the locals? Maybe the little blue square there is intended to indicate an arch at that spot. I decided to investigate.
I quickly discovered that the painting is located at the Art Institute of Chicago, and has been for years. However, the Art Institute's title refers only to the cliffs (falaise), with no mention of an arch. I was already aware of at least one Monet painting that did, in fact, include a famous arch by the sea, and possibly even had the word "arch" in the title. It was possible that this was a simple mistake. Someone at the start of a long chain of social media shares had mixed up the two paintings.
I found the painting that I had been thinking of at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Definitely a picture of an arch, although the title said only, The Manneporte, Étretat. I subsequently found an additional Étretat painting with an arch, also titled Manneporte, Étretat, from 1885, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Neither of these paintings looks anything like the Art institute's Falaise work, and neither has a beach in it. Still, it could have been a simple switch, due to someone failing to copy the correct information and then not paying attention to the lack of arch. I pressed on.
It turns out that Monet was extremely active at Étretat during this period, and created paintings of the scene from multiple perspectives and viewpoints. In some the beach is visible; in others, the arch at that site is visible, but the beach is not. At the Clark, for example, I found another painting that seems closer to the Art Institute's work. It does have a prominent arch, although the title says only "The Cliffs at Étretat." In addition, I came across several paintings of the beach that also contain a blue splotch in the distance, a little more arch-like and possibly indicating the Manneporte formation from a different angle than shown in the more explicit works. However, none of the titles of the splotch paintings included the word "arch" or the name "Eastern Rock Arch."
Although at this point, it still seemed likely that this was merely a mix-up, it remained unclear where the phrase "Eastern Rock Arch" had come from. Even if someone had invented it — say, to accompany a uncaptioned post found on social media — what had led that person to select those particular words?
After browsing the Internet for a while using various search terms and looking in all the nooks and crannies of the Internet, I went back to the Art Institute to investigate a catalogue I had seen mentioned alongside their Falaise listing. It turned out to be an in-depth discussion of the Institute's Monet collection, with plenty of photos and citations. I read the entire section on the Falaise painting, discovering along the way that there's a very similar version painted by Monet around the same time. This other cliff painting didn't shed much light on the mystery, since the perspective is almost identical and reveals more or less the same topographical features. And this one doesn't even have one of those blue dabs.
Incidentally, this similar Falaise sold at Christie's in November 2006 for USD 1,360,000.
Finally, buried in some end notes in the catalogue, I found what I had been looking for. Under the header "Post-1980, Label," along with other information, was the notation "Catalog: 81 / Etretat: The Beach and the Eastern Rock Arch." As far as I could tell, this title wasn't mentioned anywhere else in the publication, and, based on my investigations, almost nowhere else online at all. What exactly was going on?
I decided to contact the Art Institute directly. I sent a short inquiry via email, describing my confusion over this unexplained change of title, and asking why, if the title was updated at some point after 1980, did the museum's listing still refer to the painting as the Falaise d'Amont?
I was amazed and delighted to receive a very pleasant, detailed reply within 24 hours. It turns out that the Art Institute doesn't know either! Evidently, the title was altered just prior to a 1995 exhibition. The Art Institute has photocopies of the new label as proof, but doesn't appear to have retained any documentation regarding the reason. It's even possible that the 1995 change resulted from human error. And in fact, the painting's title was almost immediately switched back to its current "Falaise" name (with a new label) in 1996. The reason? To conform to the Daniel Wildenstein Monet: catalogue raisonné (W1012), which was published that year.
Based on this information, I will say definitively that this painting is titled Étretat: The Beach and the Falaise d'Amont. The arch-related title appears to have been a short-lived error that was quickly discovered and corrected.
Next up: Photos of a reproduction based on a fake Van Gogh. Also in the queue: a rare early Kandinsky, a contemporary artist whose work has been sold as Klimts, and paintings tagged as photos (and vice versa).
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Disclaimer: This blog is intended for entertainment purposes only. Although every effort has been made to verify the accuracy of the information provided, the material included here should in no way be considered the final authority on any issues discussed in the text.
Art Fakes & Mistakes in the Digital World
Most of the art images we see online these days are photos of modern reproductions — highly altered and frequently mislabeled. Living artists rarely get adequate credit for their work, and — due to the loss of detail in digital images — it's sometimes difficult to distinguish paintings from photographs. Forgers and pranksters cause mix-ups that can last for years. In addition, captions are rarely checked for accuracy, so translation errors, guesses, unverified personal opinions, etc., get circulated just as quickly as truth. Check back regularly to find out which fakes and mistakes have been making the rounds lately. Plus, get tips on how to identify imposters.