Climate change is taking its toll on a classic art destination—the inspiration behind Monet’s L’Église de Varengeville, soleil couchant, among others.
The Saint-Valery church in Monet’s 1882 painting, which sold at auction in 2014 for more than £5 million, is located in Varengeville-Sur-Mer in the Seine-Maritime department in the Normandy region of France.
During the late 19th century and early 20th century, the region was a destination for artists. Today, it’s a tourist destination, bringing tens of thousands of visitors a year.
“Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Corot were drawn to Varengeville—and eventually the Cubist artist Georges Braque, who became a resident in the village and since 1963 lies buried in the cemetery adjacent to the church,” says the Art Newspaper. Braque’s grave, along with his wife’s and servant’s, will also be lost to coastal erosion.
Climate change in Normandy
Experts say the 11th-century Romanesque and mixed architecture structure is now facing certain demise as sea levels rise due to climate change. The cliffs are made of chalk, sand, and clay, making them more vulnerable to erosion. At the time when Monet painted L’Église de Varengeville, soleil couchant, the spot where the church stands was half-a-mile inland; now it is ten meters from a parcel of land already sliding toward a cliffside receding by a meter per year.
According to a 2019 study published by the American Academy of Sciences, rising global temperatures could increase ocean levels by two meters by 2100, putting coastal regions around the world in jeopardy. In Normandy, flooding will increase, with World War II battle sites lost as the town of Carentan predicted to be underwater.
Rising temperatures are changing France’s wine industry, too. It’s begun seeing changes in the flavor profile of grapes. Scientists and the French government are looking at new grape varietals. Vineyards across the country’s wine-producing regions are moving to more sustainable growing methods. In Bordeaux—the wine capital of the world—100 percent of vineyards will be certified organic, biodynamic, or sustainable, or in transition, by 2025. Already 65 percent of winemakers in the region meet the criteria.
But preserving coastlines is challenging in different ways. “The changes here around are huge. We moved from around three major cliff crash events per year to now a dozen crashes,” captain Stéphane Dodivers told EuroNews last month.
“And we are just talking about this 30km part of the Normandy coastline. Personally, I feel very sad about this, because it means that the cliffs will have another face and, for certain in a few decades the arcs of Etretat won’t exist any longer,” Dodivers said.
L’Église de Varengeville, soleil couchant
According to Christie’s, Monet was fascinated with the landscape in Normandy. “I can’t help myself from being seduced by these admirable cliffs,” he said.
“The year before he painted Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant, he had been enchanted by the views at Fécamp; the year after, he would tackle one of the icons of the French landscape, Etretat, which had previously been painted by a number of artists including another of his mentors, and indeed a witness at his wedding, Gustave Courbet,” Christie’s explains.
“It has been suggested that Monet’s return to Normandy in the early 1880s was in part a reaction to Courbet’s legacy: he had died in 1877, but his Normandy landscapes and seascapes had become significant parts of the French avant-garde canon, tapping into a vision of France during that troubled period following its defeat during the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent revolutionary chaos.”
The church, now an historical monument, has seen €1.5 million in repairs in recent years to roof, beams, walls, and foundation. But according to Arnaud Gruet, a local councilor, “It will eventually slide into the abyss, even collapse piece by piece and fall into the sea,” he says.
Despite efforts to combat coastal erosion and reinforce the structure, experts say there’s little hope for the church on the cliffs of the Seine-Maritime department.
Some experts are suggesting relocating Saint-Valery—disassembling it brick by brick and rebuilding it further inland. Another idea being floated is moving it in its entirety on rails and dollies, but concerns about the stability of the land to be able to endure the heavy equipment make it an unlikely option.
Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant and the Saint-Valery church helped Monet earn his status as a leading landscape painter. “Monet’s enthusiasm for the views he found in Normandy may have influenced his decision, the following year, to rent a house and land at Giverny; this would become his base for the rest of his life, and would allow him to sally forth on his various painterly campaigns, especially in his locality,” Christie’s explains.
“Gradually, he would cultivate surroundings at Giverny, including his legendary gardens, which allowed him to find a constant supply of subject matter on his own doorstep. However, it is a mark of the importance of the views of Varengeville that he would return there again at the end of the following decade,” Christie’s notes. But he stumbled on the church quite by luck; he was on a leisurely walk along the coast.