Les Peupliers is the largest of twenty-four views of poplar trees on the bank of the river Epte that Monet painted in 1891, the second of his important late series. Monet had experimented with the serial approach in the late 1880s at Belle-Île, Antibes, and Juans-les-Pins, exploring a sharply limited set of compositional options under a range of different lighting and weather effects. The series became Monet's principal working mode with the twenty-five paintings of wheatstacks in the countryside near Giverny that he completed in February 1891, systematically extracting variation after variation from the same motif.
He began the poplar campaign in the spring of 1891, even before the exhibition of the Wheatstack paintings at the Galerie Durand-Ruel had opened, indicating his confidence in the new direction that he had taken his art. Paul Tucker has written, "His enthusiasm for his work surely rested on the fact that he was developing something entirely new. For no other painter up until then had ever conceived of painting a large number of pictures that concentrated on the same subject and that would be differentiated only by formal factors--color, touch, and composition--as well as by different lighting and weather conditions But he also clearly wanted to challenge himself, as everything about these paintings--from their vertical formats and lyrical compositions to their more decorative palettes and broader handling--was the opposite of the Wheatstacks. It was one more way to demonstrate his versatility as well as the range of his Impressionist style and thus stay at the forefront of the Parisian avant-garde" (Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, pp. 139 and 145).
The poplar numbered among Monet's favorite motifs throughout his career. The trees abound in the artist's views of fields around Argenteuil from the 1870s and of more rural Giverny from the following decade. They are the primary focus of attention in two canvases from 1887, which provide the closest precedent for the 1891 series, and they appear in the background of nearly half of the Wheatstack paintings. With their strict linearity and intrinsic decorative elegance, poplars held an obvious aesthetic allure for Monet. Yet the trees were also associated both literally and symbolically with French heritage and history, connotations that contributed to their appeal as an artistic motif. A well-known feature of the French countryside, poplars were often placed along rural roads and at the entrances of estates. They were used as windshields for tilled fields and as a form of fencing to demarcate property lines, and were planted along the banks of rivers to diminish the possibility of flooding. Moreover, the poplar tree had been deemed the tree of liberty after the French Revolution, possibly because of the derivation of the name from the Latin populus, meaning both "people" and "popular." By 1793, sixty thousand poplars had been planted in France and hundreds of broadsides issued featuring the tree as the symbol of the new republic. Ceremonial plantings continued in France throughout the nineteenth century, especially on the hundredth anniversary of the Revolution in 1889. Monet's selection of poplars as a motif for painting, in addition to reflecting aesthetic and decorative concerns, was thus a means of affirming the French roots of his art. As the critic for the newspaper L'Hermitage proclaimed in 1899, "[Monet] understood the poplar, which summarizes all the grace, all the spirit, all the youth of our land" (quoted in Monet in the 90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1990, p. 151).
The poplars that Monet chose to paint in 1891 were located on communal property near the village of Limetz, about two kilometers upstream from Monet's home at Giverny. Not long after Monet began work on the series, the town announced that the trees were to be auctioned in early August: they had been planted as a cash crop and had now reached an appropriate height for harvest. On 28 July, just a few days before the intended sale, Monet lamented that there remained "quantities of new canvases I must finish" (quoted in J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 210). When his entreaties to the mayor of Limetz to delay the sale were unsuccessful, Monet resorted to purchasing the trees himself in partnership with a local wood merchant, who agreed to leave them standing for several more months.
The lengths to which Monet went to preserve his motif indicates both his dedication to the series, which constituted his sole project during the summer of 1891, and his commitment to painting en plein air. The low vantage point that he adopts throughout the series suggests that he worked from the bateau atelier that he had built during his years at Argenteuil, anchoring it in the center of the river Epte. It is unlikely, however, that Monet completed these canvases out-of-doors. Richard Thomson has explained, "Although he would have begun by blocking out each motif en plein air, selecting the atmospheric conditions, and fixing the composition, each canvas would be developed in the studio. There he would build up the complex layers that encrust the surface of these gorgeous paintings and ensure that the pictures harmonized with each other. In that way when they were shown together in a single room they would work as a series not only because of a common subject but also due to a degree of coordination in their coloring" (Monet to Matisse: Landscape Painting in France, 1874-1914, exh. cat., National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1994, p. 144).
The twenty-four Peupliers compositions were all painted from almost the exact same vantage point, near a spot where the Epte bends back on itself twice to create a distinctive S-shape. In eleven of the paintings, including the present one, Monet positioned himself so that the dramatic sweep of the poplars, which lined the left bank of the river, was contained by the framing edges of the canvas (figs. 1-2). The sweep begins behind the bushy tree in the background on the left, moves first to the right and then to the left to touch each side of the scene, and finally culminates in the upper right corner. Rather than looking directly across the river at the poplars, Monet turned slightly to the left to accentuate the rise and fall of the trees as they followed the curving bank. The low vantage point that he adopted allowed him to stretch the trees and their reflections from the bottom of the canvas almost to the top, silhouetting their straight, nearly leafless trunks dramatically against the sky. This produces a tension between the dominant screen of six to eight trees in the foreground, which forcefully asserts the surface of the canvas, and the graceful line of trees that recedes into the distance and calls attention to the depth of the composition. In another group of eight paintings, Monet has moved closer to the trees, reducing the number in the foreground to just three, their tops cropped by the upper edge of the canvas (figs. 3-4). The final five versions are all either square or horizontal, and their compositions are quite different from the remaining examples. One shows a group of four trees at close range, marching laterally across the surface of the canvas (fig. 5); the remaining four are more distant views of the screen of poplars, two painted from the riverbank and another pair looking upstream.
The paintings of poplars are undeniably rooted in the visual world and in Monet's sensations in front of his motif, which he depicted under the full spectrum of daylight conditions and in every season except winter. The present painting, for instance, captures the scene under warm sun, the blue sky flecked with clouds and the leaves of the trees dappled with bright light. Tucker has written, "It is the beauty of the countryside... which Monet emphasizes the most in these pictures, as many of the canvases are bathed in fresh, radiant light and are filled with bold colors that are applied with remarkable gusto. Unlike the staid and solid wheatstacks, the trees appear lithe and limber throughout the series. And instead of sitting immutable on the land like their conical counterparts, they move through their scenes in a seductive but stately fashion, often swaying to a kind of internal rhythm, their foliage rustled by an evident wind" (op. cit., 1995, p. 147). At the same time, these seemingly descriptive views are not merely attempts to capture particular aspects of nature. They also exemplify a mounting impulse toward the decorative, an issue of keen interest among Monet's younger contemporaries, most notably Gauguin, Bernard, and Sérusier. Thomson has explained, "The paintings of course show the artist's skill in portraying weather effects, but also his craft as a pictorial organizer. Monet stresses the repetition of the vertical poplars, their trimmed trunks acting like a colonnade in the fictive architecture of his paintings. And even when he focuses on trees close to the picture plane, in some cases placing them, the bank, and their reflections almost like a grid near the surface, Monet never fails to show the line of poplars snaking into recession along the line of the Epte. So for all the apparent naturalism of his effects, he artfully employs repetition and the arabesque, two defining features of the decorative" (op. cit., p. 145).
Monet's interest in Japanese art, which was at its height in the 1890s, may also have intensified the decorative dimensions of these works. The Japanese were widely seen by French observers as masters at extracting decorative patterns from nature, as Monet did in his Peupliers, and Théodore Duret went so far as to claim that the series had been inspired by Hiroshige's Numazu, Yellow Dusk, with its sweeping curve of trees (fig. 6). Monet had begun to collect Japanese woodcut prints as early as 1871, and by the time that he painted the Peupliers, the walls of his house at Giverny were covered with them. An enthusiastic gardener all his life, Monet felt particular affinity for the deep engagement with the natural world that distinguished Japanese culture; his celebrated water garden at Giverny was eastern in inspiration, and in June 1891--in the midst of his work on the Peupliers--he invited a Japanese horticulturist to visit him there. Monet was not alone in his interest in Japanese culture at this time: an enormous exhibition of Japanese prints, illustrated books, and printed scrolls that Siegfried Bing mounted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the spring of 1890 sparked a veritable craze for japonisme in France. Beginning in the first decade of his career, Monet had often incorporated formal elements of Japanese art or actual Japanese artifacts in his painting, and the Peupliers--with their daring simplification of the trees, their radical cropping, and their use of brilliant, saturated color--represent the culmination of this dialogue.
In January of 1892, Monet delivered four of his Peupliers paintings to the Galerie Boussod & Valadon. Not averse to creating a little rivalry among dealers in Paris, he also sold seven Peupliers canvases to Durand-Ruel. Between 1 March and 10 March 1892, fifteen out of the twenty-four canvases in the series were exhibited at Durand-Ruel's gallery--by which time, Monet was already at work in Rouen on his next great serial undertaking, the views of the Cathedral there. Although Monet had included other paintings as well when he exhibited the Wheatstack series in May 1891, he limited the March 1892 show only to the Peupliers. Tucker has written, "This tactic guaranteed Monet some notoriety, as no modern landscape painter had ever so restricted a major exhibition. His decision also ensured that he would have a totally harmonious environment for his work. While emphasizing the decorative character of the series--the homogeneity of the ensemble and the uniqueness of the individual canvases--such an environment was designed to confirm Monet's versatility, inventiveness, and sensitivity to natural effects" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1990, p. 142).
Monet's strategy paid off, and the show was a resounding success. The critic Georges Lecomte wrote in Art et Critique, "The vigorous talent of Claude Monet...seems more and more to abstract the durable character of things from complex appearances, and by a more synthetic and premeditated rendering, to accentuate meaning and decorative beauty" (quoted in ibid., p. 143). In a letter to the artist, the novelist Octave Mirbeau called the paintings "absolutely admirable" and went on to describe his experience of "complete joy" in front of them, "an emotion that I cannot express, so profound that I wanted to hug you. Never did any artist ever render anything equal to it" (quoted in ibid., pp. 142-143).
Impressionist & Modern Art