Dating an Impressionist’s Sunset

S&T contributing editor Don Olson writes a feature article in the February 2014 issue connecting astronomy to Monet. We follow his team of celestial sleuths as they travel to Normandy, France to pin down the exact time and location of one of Claude Monet's most beautiful paintings.

This gallery of photos, more than we could include in the print magazine, shows how the team explored and measured the site of Monet's Normany sunset painting.

Texas State students Ava Pope, Laura Bright, and Hannah Reynolds stand with Don Olson on the cliff high above the Jambourg beach, southwest of Étretat. Visible in the background are the Needle and the Porte d’Aval, as seen from a perspective nearly opposite to that of Monet’s sunset painting.
Russell Doescher
Laura Bright, Russell Doescher, and Don Olson search for Monet locations on the Jambourg beach, with the Manneporte arch in the distance.
Marilynn Olson
Our Texas State group carried postcard-sized prints of the paintings and used them to find dozens of Monet’s locations during our August 2012 visit to Normandy. This matching photograph for the painting known as W1037, The Manneporte, looks to the northeast from the top of the cliff toward the enormous stone arch. The alignment to the base of the Needle, visible through the Manneporte arch, allowed our Texas State group to determine Monet’s viewpoint with precision.
Ava Pope
For the canvas known as W258, The Porte d’Amont, Étretat, this matching photograph looks to the southwest as the small Amont arch frames a view of the distant Needle.
Ava Pope
This Monet painting, known as W1034, The Needle and the Porte d’Aval, and the matching photograph both look to the northeast from the Jambourg beach. Morning light illuminates Monet’s 1885 scene, while our photograph shows the beach near sunset and with the tide level much lower than that shown by Monet.
Donald Olson
During the summer the Sun sets far to the north (to the right) of the Étretat Needle, as shown in this August 2012 photograph from Monet’s location on the Amont beach. During the first week of February each year the setting Sun sinks to the horizon just slightly to the right of the Needle, as seen in Monet’s sunset painting W817.
Donald Olson
Several early guidebooks gave the Needle a height of 225 feet (69 meters) or 230 feet (70 meters), exaggerated values adopted by the majority of recent authors. Our results showed that even near low tide the top of the Needle stands only about 179 feet (541⁄2 meters) above the exposed base. When the highest possible tides occur, 151 feet (46 meters) of the Needle remain visible above the waves. This photograph shows a view from the Jambourg beach near low tide, with the high-water mark clearly visible on the Needle about 28 feet (81⁄2 meters) above the exposed base.
Donald Olson
Senior contributing editor Roger Sinnott uses a sextant to measure the height of the Étretat Needle.
Donald Olson