In autumn 1879, Monet and his family had been living for just over a year at Vétheuil, a rural enclave some sixty kilometers northwest of Paris, far from the urban sprawl. An extended period of rain and gloom prevented the artist from painting outdoors, amidst the immensely varied landscape that he had already come to love, so he took refuge in the small attic space that he had outfitted as a studio and set up a basket overflowing with apples and variously colored grapes. During the ensuing weeks, as the wet weather persisted and then, in mid-November, gave way to a sudden freeze, Monet made three large paintings of this abundant still-life display—the present canvas and Wildenstein, nos. 545-546 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The Art Institute of Chicago). “Monet painted such canvases with a flourish,” Richard Thomson has written, “confident in his ability to animate any still-life motif with the vivacity of his brushwork, unity of his light, and coherence of his chromatics, and without excessive commitment to surface exactitude” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2003, p. 76).
Although Monet experimented with still-life painting at various intervals during his career, his most extensive and searching foray into the genre occurred during the three-and-a-half years that he lived at Vétheuil, from August 1878 until December 1881. This was a decisive period of artistic reassessment and renewal for Monet, who was then entering middle age. At Vétheuil, he entirely abandoned the scenes of modern life and leisure that had dominated his work previously at Argenteuil and began to focus instead on conveying his most fugitive sensations before the landscape. In his still lifes of this period, likewise, his foremost goal was to capture the highly dynamic surface effects that were created as light flickered over arrangements of flowers or foodstuffs. “Monet played down the physicality of the objects,” John House has written, “in favor of emphasizing their optical effect, with the informality of their grouping suggesting that this effect has been rapidly perceived” (Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 42).
In Nature morte au melon, light enters the scene at the front left, illuminating the myriad textures of the artfully arranged still-life display. The smooth, waxy surface of the apples and grapes contrasts with the coarse wicker of the basket; the exposed portion of the bamboo-edged, wooden table bears a light polish, while the damask tablecloth has a checkered weave that Monet described with rapid strokes of pearly gray. Of the three paintings that Monet made of this motif in autumn 1879, the present canvas is the only one in which he added the cut melon at the right, a quotation perhaps of Chardin’s Le melon entamé (1760) in the Louvre and Monet’s own Nature morte au melon of 1872 (Wildenstein, no. 245; Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon). Here, the glistening slice of fruit invites the viewer to consider other sensations—taste and smell—alongside the visual and textural effects that formed the crux of Monet’s still-life explorations.
This sumptuously painted canvas betrays no hint of the profound personal difficulties that beset Monet at this time. His wife Camille had fallen gravely ill following the birth of their second son Michel in March 1878; one reason for the family’s move from bustling Argenteuil to sleepy Vétheuil that August was to provide Camille a tranquil environment in which to convalesce. The artist’s financial situation was also dire, his income having plummeted by more than half since mid-decade. To reduce expenses, the Monets shared a house at Vétheuil with Alice Hoschedé and her six children, while her husband Ernest—the artist’s friend and former patron—remained in Paris tending to his bankrupt textile business. Despite Alice’s dedicated nursing, Camille suffered acutely throughout the summer of 1879 and died on 5 September at the age of 32. Monet’s grief was intense, and became further complicated by his nascent feelings for Alice, who would eventually become his second wife.
When Monet turned to still-life painting a few weeks later, the ready salability of the genre was a prime impetus. In December 1879, he borrowed fifty francs from the postmistress at Vétheuil and struggled through deep snow to reach Paris, seeking buyers for his three fruit still lifes that he had recently completed and another autumnal trio depicting dead game—the fruits of the hunt. Georges Petit, whose support Monet had recently begun to court, bought one of the fruit compositions for 500 francs (Wildenstein, no. 545). A dealer named Theulier, who had purchased two floral still lifes from Monet the previous year, selected Nature morte au melon and an identically sized game subject (no. 551), likely intending the pair as pendant decorations for a client’s dining room. Theulier paid Monet 800 francs total, more than the yearly rent on his house at Vétheuil.
Monet continued to promote his achievement in the genre the following year. Georges Petit, having attained a promise from the painter to try his hand at the official Salon, purchased one of the game pictures in February 1880 (Wildenstein, no. 549). In June, Monet exhibited two still lifes—a fruit composition from the previous fall (no. 546) and Theulier’s painting of pheasants, which he enlisted the dealer to lend—in a mini-retrospective at La Vie Moderne, the first solo show of his career. The last of the 1879 still lifes found buyers later in 1880, and two more fruit studies from autumn of that year were quickly snapped up by a new patron named Delius (nos. 630-631). By the time Durand-Ruel began to buy again from Monet in 1881 after a long hiatus, the artist was no longer living hand-to-mouth. “Financially speaking,” Charles Stuckey has written, “landscape painter Monet was saved by his work in still life” (Monet at Vétheuil, exh. cat., University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1998, p. 56).