‘To perceive M. Monet’s paintings correctly and appreciate their exceptional qualities, one has to go beyond the first impression…; soon the eye grows accustomed and the intellect is awakened; the magic does its work.’ (Alfred de Lostalot, writing in La Gazette des Beaux-Arts, April 1883; quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet and the Triumph of Impressionism, p. 188).
‘I am still an Impressionist and will always remain one.’ (Claude Monet, quoted in P. Hayes Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 127).
‘The further I go, the better I see that it takes a great deal of work to succeed in rendering what I want to render: instantaneity, above all the enveloppe, the same light diffused over everything.’ (Monet, quoted in J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 198).
Painted in the summer of 1885, Prairie à Giverny emerged during a pivotal moment in Claude Monet’s artistic career, as he sought to champion the aesthetic and artistic potentials of the Impressionist style, defining and consolidating its boundaries at a time when the movement was facing challenges on numerous fronts. Following his return from a three-month painting campaign on the Italian Riviera in the spring of 1884, Monet spent much of the following two years devoted to painting en plein air in the countryside around his new home at Giverny, producing an astonishingly rich and varied group of artworks which revel in the myriad of picturesque vistas that he discovered there. Celebrating the beauty and allure of the fleeting play of light and changing atmosphere on the verdant landscape during different seasons, weather conditions and times of day, each of these compositions clearly illustrates Monet’s unwavering confidence in the techniques and principles of Impressionism. Filled with a vivid sense of movement and energy, Prairie à Giverny demonstrates the artist’s exceptional painterly skills, as he plays with broken brushwork and compositional effects, juxtaposing delicate painting of the sky against the thick, colourful mass of brushstrokes that fill the green expanse of foliage in the foreground, to create a vibrant, dynamic vision of the Giverny landscape.
In search of a permanent base which he could finally call home after years of upheaval, Monet had moved his family to Giverny in the spring of 1883. Situated some forty miles from Paris, at the confluence of the Seine and the river Epte, Giverny at this time was a small farming community of just three hundred inhabitants, a countryside enclave which remained untouched by the encroaching modernisation which had dramatically altered scores of villages and hamlets along the Seine in recent years. Here, Monet found the tranquil retreat he had been searching for, renting a sprawling, pink stucco house called La Pressoir (The Cider Press) from a wealthy local landowner who had recently retired to nearby Vernon. Sandwiched between the main village road and the regional thoroughfare connecting Vernon and Gasny, the house boasted a kitchen garden and orchard in front and a barn to the west that Monet soon converted into a studio. Originally attracted by the blossoming fruit trees surrounding the house, the artist set about improving the garden almost immediately after he moved in, planting new additions so that ‘there would be flowers to paint on rainy days’ (Monet, quoted in Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., New York & St. Louis, 1978, p. 18).
The artist was immediately captivated by the landscape around Giverny. ‘Once settled, I hope to produce masterpieces,’ he wrote to Durand-Ruel within days of his arrival, ‘because I like the countryside very much’ (Monet, quoted in ibid, pp. 15-16). Nearly a decade later, his enthusiasm remained unwavering, proclaiming that he was ‘certain of never finding a better situation or more beautiful countryside’ (Monet, quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 175). Throughout his first years at Giverny, Monet tirelessly explored the idyllic vistas of the surrounding terrain, setting out each morning with his canvases, walking over hills and through valleys, in marshes and meadows, among streams and poplars, constantly searching for fresh subjects to inspire him. Compositions focusing on the meandering flow and verdant banks of the Seine and the river Epte were interspersed by views of the winding country roads, orchards and poppy fields surrounding the house. The journalist Georges Jeanniot, who accompanied Monet on a painting excursion in the countryside a few years later, recalled the artist’s ability to find novel vantage points and unusual perspectives during his jaunts through the landscape: ‘He would stop before the most dissimilar scenes, admiring each and making me aware of how splendid and unexpected nature is’ (Jeanniot, quoted in op. cit., p. 21).
Perhaps the most frequent motif that Monet explored during this period was the ever changing character of the verdant meadow known as La Prairie. Situated not far from the house at La Pressoir, this rich expanse of pasture was separated from the property by the small brook which would later feed the artist’s celebrated water-lily pond. Monet had first discovered this alluring spot during the summer of 1884, painting a trio of views of the fresh mounds of hay which had been gathered and built in the field, looking north towards a row of poplars that bordered the meadow, with the hills overlooking Giverny just visible in the distance. In each of these compositions, the iconic profiles of the haystacks dominate the landscape, the cut and dried grass piled into loose bundles, stray leaves tumbling free from the stack. Over the course of the following two years, Monet dedicated himself to depicting the site from multiple different viewpoints and in a myriad of atmospheric conditions, creating compositions which have been described by scholars as exemplifying the ‘broken brushwork, luminosity and prismatic colour that one associates with ’high’ impressionism…’ (F. Fowle, Van Gogh’s Twin: The Scottish Art Dealer Alexander Reid 1854-1928, Edinburgh, 2010, p. 131). As such, these early views of the Prairie can be seen as important and direct precursors to the artist’s seminal suite of works known as les meules (1890-1891), which depict the grainstacks that filled the landscape surrounding Giverny during the autumn and winter months, and stand amongst the very first examples of Monet’s practice of working in series, a technique that would dominate his oeuvre for the final four decades of his life.
The presence of the poplars in the middle ground of the painting, meanwhile, anticipates another of Monet’s suite of serial paintings during the early 1890s, Les peupliers. These compositions, begun in the spring of 1891, focus on the slender, towering profiles of a cluster of poplar trees planted along the banks of the River Epte, just a short distance from the scene depicted in the present composition. Although the poplars remain in the distance in Prairie à Giverny, they nevertheless dominate the horizon line, the regular rhythm of their forms granting them a distinctive presence within the scene. Poplars were a common feature of the French countryside during the nineteenth century, often placed alongside rural roads as windshields for tilled fields, used as a form of fencing to demarcate property boundaries, and planted along river banks as protection against flooding, as their trunks could quickly absorb large amounts of water. Spaced at regular intervals to maximise their growth, their trunks trimmed to eliminate branches, these trees became emblems within the countryside, symbols of the stability, beauty and fecundity of rural France. The poplars became a particularly important motif for the artist following his move to Giverny, and the present composition is amongst the first of Monet’s paintings in which the iconic trees occupy such a central position within the scene.
When Monet returned to La Prairie in 1885 to paint the present work, the lower branches of the poplars, closely pruned the year before, had grown full and leafy once again, while the rich field of grass had reached the height of its summer growth, their tall green stalks bobbing under the weight of pale summer blooms. Positioning himself in almost exactly the same spot as the previous year, Monet set about capturing the richness of the meadow in the weeks immediately preceding the annual harvest, using a palette of richly variegated greens, golds and white, to depict the thick fronds of grass that populated the field. The broad expanse of the meadow, which fills the lower half of the composition in Prairie à Giverny, is rendered in a mosaic of thickly impastoed, richly coloured strokes of paint, their forms woven together to capture the texture and movement of the tall, waving stalks of grass. The short, diagonal brushstrokes the artist uses in the foreground are echoed in the forms of the poplars that line the edge of the field, creating the impression that a gentle breeze has swept through the scene, causing the foliage to dance and the trees to bow before the painter. There is a distinct sense of rapidity and spontaneity in Monet’s technique, the staccato, comma-like brushstrokes granting an impression of the speed with which he sought to capture the ephemeral scene before it shifted and altered once again.
With its exquisitely nuanced description of the fleeting effects of light, Prairie à Giverny forcefully asserts Impressionism’s continued strength and vitality, at a time when many of the movement’s pioneering members were abandoning the cause. Alongside a series of internal conflicts and rifts, in 1884 Georges Seurat stunned the art world by exhibiting his monumental work Bathers at Asnières at the inaugural Salon des Artistes Indépendants. A veritable manifesto for the artist’s pioneering Neo-Impressionist technique known as Pointillism, this work championed structure and science over fleeting impressions and spontaneity, its surface of tiny, independent touches of paint heralding the arrival of a new avant-garde idiom that offered a direct challenge to the artistic vocabulary of the Impressionists. While Pissarro was soon swayed by Seurat’s radical new style, Monet remained strictly dedicated to the cause of Impressionism, declaring: ‘I am still an Impressionist and will always remain one’ (Claude Monet, quoted in Tucker, op. cit., p. 127). He resolutely focused his paintings on the description of natural phenomena, painting directly in front of the motif en plein air, and using the fragmented, gestural brushwork which had been such a defining feature of his early Impressionist canvases.
Monet’s paintings from Giverny during this period present a very particular vision of France, rooted in the long-standing belief that the country’s rich lands and temperate climate were a point of national pride. This connection between French patriotism and the landscape had gained a particular potency following the loss of the Alsace and Lorraine regions during the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. In Prairie à Giverny, the lush foliage of the meadow offers tangible evidence of the land’s fertility, standing as a reassuring testimony to the continuity of the agrarian traditions and the health of rural France, in the face of political, cultural and technological developments. To further emphasise this, Monet leaves the scene completely devoid of any human presence. Instead, the meadow remains untouched by human hands, driven by its own natural cycle of regrowth alone, the rich green leaves springing forth in response to the return of the sunlight and rain of springtime. As Paul Hayes Tucker has suggested, this aspect of Monet’s paintings ‘implied that the countryside was a place where one could find reassurances about the world, where contemporary problems seemed to vanish, and a deeper union with nature appeared possible’ (Tucker, in Monet in the 90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Boston, 1989, p. 111). Pure landscape also offered Monet the opportunity for bold artistic experimentation, liberating his brushwork and colour to the point that they dissolve into an almost abstract mosaic of thick brushstrokes. As such, the landscapes from Giverny during the 1880s became a showcase for Monet’s bold painterly style, delicately balancing abstraction with representation to not only evoke the presence of intangible elements, such as light, the passage of time, and atmosphere, but also to champion the continued importance and dynamism of Impressionism itself.
Monet’s activities at la Prairie during the summer of 1885, when the present work was painted, were immortalised in a portrait by the American painter John Singer Sargent, an avid early follower and friend of Monet’s who most likely visited the artist at his home in Giverny during the warm summer months of that year. According to Monet, he had first met Sargent at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris in 1876, and the pair began a regular correspondence which they maintained over the course of the ensuing years. Their blossoming friendship was aided by the frequent group exhibitions in which they both featured throughout the early 1880s, and while visiting Paris in 1885, Sargent seems to have decided to venture out to Giverny to visit Monet in person. Their cordial relationship ensured that the American was permitted to join Monet on his painting excursions into the countryside, and Sargent took the opportunity to record the artist working en plein air in the composition Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood. In the portrait, Monet appears to be working on the painting Pré à Giverny, also known as Meadow with Haystacks near Giverny, now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, while a young woman, possibly the artist’s stepdaughter Suzanne Hoschedé, rests in the shade by the slender trees that line the boundary of the field. Rendered in loose strokes of fluid pigment, the painting evokes the rapidity with which Sargent has captured the scene, catching his subject unawares as he works on his canvas. Completely absorbed by the scene, Monet remains oblivious to Sargent’s penetrating gaze, his own eyes fixed on the meadow as he attempts to render the shifting light that dances across the haystacks.