Painted in 1876, Dans la prairie dates from the time that Claude Monet spent in Argenteuil, a pool of rural calm and beauty within easy reach of Paris. The picture is filled with colour, with flowers captured in darting brushstrokes that lend the work a deliberately hazy vivacity. And dominating the composition, despite the fact that she is almost submerged by the vivid cornucopia of foliage, is Monet's wife Camille, reading, a lyrical image and embodiment of calm and tranquillity perfectly suited to this shimmering impression of a day in the countryside. The early history of Impressionism is punctuated by paintings of Camille, by Monet, Renoir and Manet alike, often shown in the countryside around Argenteuil in pictures suffused with the pleinairisme that was so crucial to the movement. It is a tribute to the success of Dans la prairie in capturing this quintessential Impressionist quality that it was exhibited at the movement's famous third exhibition--the first in which they referred to themselves as Impressionists. It was lent to that exhibition by Théodore Duret, the famous collector and art historian who wrote the first monograph on the Impressionists and was a great supporter of their movement. While this picture has been shown in only a handful of exhibitions, the last one over half a century ago, its incredibly extensive literary history is a key indication of its importance as one of Monet's seminal works from one of his most important and celebrated periods.
Dans la prairie was painted towards the end of Monet's stay at Argenteuil. He had arrived there at the very end of 1871, and had already been able to entertain his former mentor Eugène Boudin at a housewarming party there on the 2 January of the following year. Argenteuil was to become one of the most important cradles of Impressionism during the following half decade. Edouard Manet lived across the river in Gennevilliers and he, Monet and Renoir often painted together, even capturing similar scenes from the different angles of their different easels, including pictures of Camille. It was in working side by side, in seeing each other's works and spurring each other on, that Impressionism truly came into existence; Monet and Renoir in particular found themselves making advance after advance, painting masterpiece after masterpiece. A telling number of the works dating from this period now adorn the walls of museums throughout the world.
Argenteuil was an increasingly popular spot by the time Monet moved there. The French capital was growing in size, and industrialisation was having an impact on life there. More and more middle-class Parisians began to look to the outlying areas near Paris for homes, or at least for day- or weekend-trips. Argenteuil was a mere quarter of an hour by train from the Gare Saint-Lazare, and Monet himself would have known the area as he had often passed it on that line when travelling to Bougival and his native Le Havre. Intriguingly, where the town provided many Parisians with a chance to enjoy the fresh air and even a garden, a green space, of their own, Monet's initial pictures from the area often showed his fascination with the impinging strands of modern life that were evident in the bridges, the railways and the factories, rather than the more traditional, Arcadian scenes that might have been expected.
During the time that Monet lived there, the more industrial, and indeed the more urban, aspects of life came to exert more weight on town life. It was against the backdrop of Argenteuil's increasingly coming under the grip of Paris-- and indeed modernity-- that, in the first half of 1876 especially, the artist embarked upon a group of paintings in which he deliberately edited out these hints of modern life, shunning the boats, bridges, trains and bourgeois characters that had introduced their soupçons of urbanity in some of his earlier works, and instead focussing on a pastoral lyricism. It was possibly to these works that he was referring when he wrote to his friend and patron the Romanian doctor Georges de Bellio that he had embarked upon 'a whole series of rather interesting new things' (Claude Monet, quoted in P. Hayes Tucker, Monet at Argenteuil, New Haven and London, 1982, p. 153). Intriguingly, following this development, Monet would turn to the metropolis itself for subject-matter, painting upon his smoke- and clamour-filled pictures of the Gare Saint-Lazare from which he had so often travelled. However, he would return more and more often to lyrical, natural subjects while staying at Vétheuil, and would have a chance to achieve the concentration of colour found in Dans la prairie in his own flowerbeds at Giverny, allowing him to create and engineer the vistas filled with reds, blues, yellows and so forth that would occupy so much of his output from the moment of his arrival there. It is telling that it was only just over seven years after Monet had left Argenteuil that he arrived in Giverny and embarked upon the horticultural programme that would provide him with such a wealth of subject matter there.
In the contemplative pose that the subject of Dans la prairie has taken, absorbed by her reading while embedded in the explosion of colour that makes up the flowers-- and recalls the flecks of scattered red of the poppies in Les coquelicots (W274) painted three years previously-- Monet has deliberately restricted his view to something timeless, even romantic, removing any of the elements of modern life. He has focussed on Camille, his muse, his lover of a decade and wife of half a dozen years, the subject of his first truly successful painting shown to acclaim at the Salon ten years earlier. The hint of romance with which Dans la prairie is suffused was particularly apt in Argenteuil, which still fêted its role as the setting for the historic tale of Abelard and Héloïse. Indeed, only two decades before Dans la prairie was painted, the town's main thoroughfare had been renamed Boulevard Héloïse; this street would come to be painted by Monet, with its name included in the title. Dans la prairie is clearly filled with tender affection, as are so many of the paintings that date from the half decade that the artist spent in Argenteuil. The picture is an insight into the artist and his family, which continued to grow-- his son Michel was born in March 1878-- and to the relative stability of this period. Writing to de Bellio, lamenting his lack of funds, Monet managed to give telling evidence of his attachment to his life in Argenteuil:
'I am writing to you with a heavy heart to ask you, if you have the time, to come and choose the two sketches that you were kind enough to buy and pay for in advance. I can find no way out of it, the creditors are proving impossible to deal with and short of a sudden appearance on the scene of wealthy art patrons, we are going to be turned out of this dear little house where I led a simple life and was able to work so well. I do know what will become of us... and yet I had so much fire in me and so many plans' (Claude Monet, 1876, quoted in R. Kendall (ed.), Monet by himself: Paintings, drawings, pastels, letters, London, 1989, p. 29).
Argenteuil clearly remained, even during the final years that Monet spent there, a huge influence, a sort of topical muse, an inspiration. Monet found seam after seam of rich material, producing some of his most famous masterpieces; despite the fact that he painted almost exclusively in that area for a sustained amount of time during the years up until his departure for the Hoschedé château at Montgeron in 1877, he had managed to find a wealth of scenes, and variations upon them, truly consolidating his mastery of his style and medium.
Central to many of these pictures, whether seen close up or at a distance, in costume or in her normal apparel, was Camille. The couple had moved to Argenteuil shortly after their marriage in 1870; they already had one son, Jean, who, to the immense disapproval of both the artist's parents and Camille's, had been born out of wedlock. Indeed, this lack of parental support had at some points exacerbated the financial situation of Monet and his young family. However, following their marriage, some amends appear to have been made, and they would eventually even receive a modest inheritance from Camille's father.
There is sense of happiness evident in the sheer vitality of the brushwork of Dans la prairie. The painting has been rendered using an incredibly expressive and active array of brushstrokes, many of which convey the sense of the foliage, the stems and blossoms in which Camille has been absorbed while she reads. The colours have been deftly captured, as has the atmosphere; the viewer can well imagine the plants swaying gently in the breeze, an indication of the seeming effortlessness with which Monet could paint the motif before him. It was this skill that would lead to the effusive praise of his fellow painter, Paul Cézanne: 'Monet is the strongest of us. He's only an eye, but, my God, what an eye!' (Paul Cézanne, quoted in F. Elgar, Cézanne, London, 1969, p. 49). He was able to translate the world into oils, to evoke atmosphere through the flick of his brush. In Dans la prairie, those flicks have conjured before us an image of life that is made all the more vivid by the fact that the oils have been rendered in an almost gestural manner. This introduces a sense of the ephemeral, of this being a true impression, as well as conveying Monet's own enthusiasm for the scene. Indeed, between some of the brushstrokes, rare patches of primed canvas show through, revealing the spontaneity and vigour with which Monet has captured his subject.
It is a clear indication of the esteem in which Monet himself held this painting that, the year after it was completed, it was included in the 3e exposition de peinture. This third exhibition was the first in which the artists themselves referred to it as the Exposition des Impressionnistes, embracing the jibe that had been aimed at them three years earlier by Louis Leroy when he attempted to lampoon them in Le Charivari. It was an indication of how far these artists had come that this third exhibition became the talk of the town and was visited by thousands of people. While some continued to mock, not least Louis Leroy himself, others saw much to recommend on the walls of the gallery space at 6, rue le Peletier, opposite Durand-Ruel's gallery, the site of their last exhibition.
The quality and the range of Monet's works on display met with praise from several quarters. Georges Rivière wrote perhaps the most lengthy text accompanying the exhibition, entitled L'Impressionniste. Journal d'art, in which he declared:
'The strength and vitality, in a word the life, that [Renoir] invests in his characters, M. Monet invests in things; he has given them a soul. In his paintings, the water laps, trains move, boat-sails billow in the wind, the fields, the houses, everything in this great artist's work has an intense life of its own which nobody before him had revealed or even suspected.'
'M. Monet is not satisfied with merely depicting the awe-inspiring and majestic side of nature, but he can also render its pleasant and charming side, as seen by any cheerful young man. No gloomy thought ever disturbs the viewer of this powerful painter's canvases. The only regret we ever feel, after the pleasures of admiring his work, is that of not being able to live for ever amid the luscious nature that flourishes in his paintings' (G. Rivière, 'The Exhibition of the Impressionists', pp. 593-98, C. Harrison, P. Wood and J. Gaiger (ed.), Art in Theory 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford, 1998, p. 595).
An important recollection of the exhibition was written by Théodore Duret, the advocate of Impressionism, its first true chronicler, and the first owner of Dans la prairie. He stated that in many ways it was this third exhibition that was really important and that truly showed the movement at its best, in all its strength, and with the benefit of several years of consolidation both of the ranks and of the trailblazing artistic concepts and techniques:
'... as all the true Impressionists returned together this time, Pissarro, Claude Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Cézanne, Guillaumin, with Caillebotte and a few other new recruits, their pictures occupied almost the entire space. Because of this, the exhibition, less mixed, had a more distinctive character and a more markedly intransigent appearance than the first show in 1874. In addition, because they were all fired up by the same spirit and by an equal ardour, constantly sustaining and stimulating each other, they had over the past there years developed and accentuated the particularities that distinguished them, resulting in their third exhibition being otherwise as audacious as their first one.'
An old friend of Manet who had been introduced to the wonders of modern painting through his acquaintance with Corot and Courbet, Duret was to become a vital supporter of the Impressionists, using the fortune from his family's cognac business to make a string of fantastic purchases. Indeed, when his financial fortunes turned and he was obliged to offer his collection for sale in 1894, the auction, at which Dans la prairie was purchased by Edmond Simon, was one of the great Impressionist events. Duret maintained friendships with a range of artists, as is indicated by the portraits of him by Manet, Whistler and Vuillard; he wrote books and articles on a large number of subjects, and was the first true chronicler of Impressionism. Dans la prairie, then, is an absorbing picture, filled with beauty, that provides an insight both into one of the most important periods of Monet's painting and into the early reception and history of Impressionism itself.