There are few paintings of the inland water landscape in Monet’s oeuvre, and certainly no single sequence prior to the magisterial and crowning Nymphéas in the early twentieth century, that are more mysteriously enchanting and serenely contemplative than the twenty-two canvases of his Matinée sur la Seine series, which record the exquisitely delicate, elusive effects of early-morning light on a tranquil arm of the river near the artist’s home in Giverny, during the summers of 1896 and 1897. In these ethereal and evocative pictures, some of the last that Monet would paint of his beloved Seine, he focused intensively and exclusively on the subtlety of atmospheric effect, ultimately transcending the pure representation of landscape and moving into the realm of poetic decoration. The emphatic contrast in the present view between the foliage in shadow and the brightening light of the new day, achieved by means of a dramatic contre-jour effect, carries this hushed, elegant composition to the very brink of abstraction.
“Beyond time, quiet and calm, these paintings have a poetic way of evoking atmosphere, whereby the concrete figurative element is relegated completely to the background,” Karin Sagner-Düchting has written. “As though by undergoing metamorphosis, the figure is divested of familiar and identifiable features. In a symbolist sense it is merely suggested, not clearly defined” (Monet and Modernism, exh. cat., Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, 2001, p. 52).
During the previous two years, Monet had embarked on extended painting campaigns in Norway and along the Channel coast, battling difficult wintry weather conditions to depict these rugged locales. It came as a welcome pleasure for him, then, to return to the sanctuary of Giverny, and during the summer of 1896 to immerse himself again in the lush, verdant landscape near his home and cherished gardens. He completed four canvases of the Matinée sur le Seine sequence during that year (Wildenstein, nos. 1435-1437, including 1436a), and probably began others in the larger balance of the group as well. That was as far as Monet could take the series in 1896, however. Forty-one days of nearly incessant rainfall during September and October—“frightful weather,” he lamented to Durand-Ruel—forced the artist to cease work on these pictures; he resorted instead to painting several scenes of flooded riverside meadows in Giverny (nos. 1438, 1438a, and 1439). He resumed his Matinée sur le Seine series the following summer, completing those canvases already underway as well as new ones, to all of which he applied the date ‘1897’ (nos. 1472-1488; no. 1499 is dated ‘1898’).
Rather than painting a wide-open expanse of the river, as he often had before, Monet chose for this series a quiet, protected backwater where the Epte tributary fed into the Seine. He worked from his studio-boat, which he left anchored mid-river for the duration of the summer, rowing out to it each morning in a skiff. As he looked upstream into the breaking dawn, on his left was the Giverny bank and on his right was the Île aux Orties, one of several wooded islets that then dotted this stretch of the Seine. He emphasized the meditative qualities of the site by selecting a spot where the trees on the Giverny shore were especially full, arching out over the narrow channel of water. These overhanging branches fill the upper left quadrant of the paintings in the series like a curtain being raised on the ethereal, early-morning landscape. “It seems difficult to conceive that this dreamy, otherworldly place Monet conjures up was just a brief journey from his home,” Tanya Paul has written, “yet it took the artist just a few moments to arrive at it” (Monet and the Seine: Impressions of a River, exh. cat., Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, 2014, p. 41).
Having already painted several extended sequences under changing light and in varying weather conditions, employing grain stacks, a row of poplars, and the façade of Rouen Cathedral as his now-celebrated motifs, Monet had by this time perfected his serial procedure. While working on the Matinée sur le Seine canvases, he kept to a rigorous and disciplined regimen from first to last. The journalist Maurice Guillemot, who visited and interviewed Monet during the summer of 1897, described the process that the artist undertook to paint this series:
“The crack of dawn, in August, 3:30 a.m. His torso snug in a white woolen hand-knit, his feet in a pair of sturdy hunting boots with thick, dew-proof soles, his head covered by a picturesque, battered, brown felt hat, with the brim turned up to keep off the sun, a cigarette in his mouth...he pushes open the door, walks down the steps, follows the central path through his garden...and comes to the river.
“There he unties his rowboat moored in the reeds along the bank, and with a few strokes reaches the large punt at anchor which serves as his studio. The local man, a gardener’s helper, who accompanies him, unties the packages—as they called the stretched canvases joined in pairs and numbered—and the artist sets to work.
“Fourteen paintings have been started at the same time...each the translation of a single, identical motif whose effect is modified by the time of day, the sun, and the clouds. This is where the Epte river flows into the Seine, among tiny islands shaded by tall trees, where branches of the river, like peaceful solitary lakes beneath the foliage, form mirrors of water reflecting the greenery...
“He shows me his fourteen studies in progress, retrieved from the boat and placed for the moment upon easels. It is a marvel of contagious emotion, of intense poetry, and unless one already knew...about the prolonged, patient labor, the anxiety about the results, the conscientious study, the feverish obsession with the work of two years, one would be astonished by his wish: ‘I’d like to keep anyone from knowing how it’s done’” (“Claude Monet,” La Revue Illustrée, 15 March 1898; in C.F. Stuckey, ed., Monet: A Retrospective, New York, 1985, pp. 195-201).
Monet had his flat-bottomed bateau-atelier fitted with a notched frame that held the canvases upright in the order in which he was working on them. As the light changed during the course of the morning, he quickly switched from one canvas to the next. Lilla Cabot Perry, an American painter who was Monet’s neighbor in Giverny, recalled the artist having explained to her that the effect he was seeking “lasted only seven minutes, or until the sunlight left a certain leaf, when he took out the next canvas and worked on that. He always insisted on the great importance of a painter noticing when the effect changed, so as to get a true impression of a certain aspect of nature and not a composite picture. He admitted that it was difficult to stop in time because one got carried away” (ibid., p. 184).
In no other series in Monet’s oeuvre did the artist focus on such a limited portion of the day, recording the ephemeral changes in the light as dawn encroached upon this sheltered spot in the landscape. In the canvases painted earliest in the morning, light has not yet penetrated the scene, and mist still hangs heavily over the river, reducing the distant forms of trees to soft shapes in the background. As the sun began to rise, Monet—looking roughly south-east—rendered the sky bathed in a warm orange glow but the banks of the river still completely in shadow; he then described the way that light catches on the tops of the foliage on the Île aux Orties, and a few moments later when the entire opposite bank flashes luminously in the morning sun. Finally, in an ambitious coda to the series, Monet turned his angle of vision roughly ninety degrees clockwise to face the Île aux Orties head-on, depicting it shimmering in the full light of day (Wildenstein, nos. 1489-1492).
In the present painting, Monet has captured a particularly delicate and fleeting effect, when light has just pierced the secluded inlet and illuminated the distant stand of foliage. The foreground trees, however, remain in deep blue-green shadow, silhouetted in striking counterpoint against the gradually brightening sky, now a delicate pale blue with lingering touches of rose near the horizon. Viewed in backlight, these overhanging branches form an elegant, decorative arabesque that calls attention to the flat surface of the picture plane. The reflections of the foreground foliage, by contrast, define the entrance to a pathway that gently coaxes the viewer’s eye into spatial depth, following the meandering course of the reflected light on the river until it converges with the source of that luminosity in the sky.
The twenty-two canvases in the Matinées sur la Seine series range from horizontals of varying proportions, the conventional choice for landscape painting, to almost perfect squares like the present example, a much more experimental and radically modern format that Monet would next explore in his virtually abstract Nymphéas. Here, Monet has employed a high horizon line that effectively bisects the composition, creating a perfect echo between the trees and sky in the upper half of the canvas and their mirrored double beneath. The dark, overhanging branches in the foreground are re-stated in lighter tints in the tree line on the opposite shore, producing a subtle bilateral symmetry along a vertical axis as well. Monet has countered the geometry of this grid-like composition by rendering the branches and their reflections in generous, undulating curves, suggesting the wonderfully irregular qualities of nature in contrast to the highly rational square. The painting thus exists at once as an abstract design with an internal, aesthetic logic and as an evocative description of this particular site, in all its evanescent beauty.
The Matinée sur la Seine paintings represent one of two major serial undertakings that absorbed Monet almost completely in 1896-1897. The other, collectively titled Les Falaises, depicts the towering chalk cliffs at Pourville, where the artist spent two successive winter seasons. Both of these subjects—the Seine and the Normandy coast—had been constant touchstones for Monet since the earliest years of his career. Rather than re-treading familiar ground, however, he now adopted a visionary new approach to painting these deeply personal, resonant subjects. In both series, forms are pared down to simple arabesques, contours are softer and less defined than ever before, and thin veils of color overlap to create a harmonious, tapestry-like surface. “Everything has become more homogenous, giving the scene a sedate, muffled quality,” Paul Tucker has noted. “The later paintings are much more restrained and much grander” (Monet in the 90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, p. 236).
In other respects, however, these two contemporaneous series form a striking contrast. Whereas the Falaises are expansive, wind-swept, and volatile, the Matinées sur la Seine are delicate, contained, and self-reflective. In the coastal scenes, the compositional elements are arranged asymmetrically, the land rising and falling in unpredictable and precarious ways. The Seine paintings, by contrast, are balanced and stable, with a mirror-like equivalence between water and sky. The Falaises, Tucker has suggested, are indebted to the Dutch landscape tradition, while the Matinées represent a veritable homage to Corot—for Monet and his fellow Impressionists their most admired forerunner, both for his atmospheric plein-air technique and, in a direct line from Claude Lorrain, for his classical demeanor. “The ties to Corot are evident in the vaporous quality of many of the pictures in the series, in the reverie that the soft, ill-defined forms generate, and in the bucolic world that the group as a whole suggests” (ibid., p. 246).
Monet exhibited fifteen Matinées sur la Seine and twenty-four Falaises together at the Galerie Georges Petit in June 1898, where the two series met with almost unanimous acclaim. The present canvas was likely included in this show as No. 31. The Guillemot article cited above was printed in advance of the exhibition, whetting expectations. Shortly after the paintings went on view, the newspaper Le Gaulois published a special issue exclusively devoted to Monet and his work, which featured an appreciation by Gustave Geffroy, an anthology of critical praise from the previous decade, and a new photograph of the dashingly dressed artist. The next week, the conservative Moniteur des Arts came out with a similar supplement, in which the editor admitted that he had never been one of Monet’s supporters but that the Petit installation had won him over whole-heartedly.
Instead of the stonily encrusted surfaces of the Rouen Cathedral paintings shown three years earlier, viewers now marveled at the harmonious subtlety in Monet’s technique, with formal elements emerging as silhouette and arabesque against the light. “[Monet] looked at that spectacle in the morning mist, at sunrise, during the bright hours and the gray ones,” Geffroy wrote. “He became enamored of the nuances of that great passage of brightness, he followed them in the depths of the sky and the water, he expressed them by the bluish darkenings and greenish and golden awakenings of the foliage. It is these landscapes that are here assembled, these dark forms, these distant ghosts, these mysterious evocations, these transparent mirrors” (quoted in R. Gordon and A. Forge, Monet, New York, 1983, p. 179).