“One day, when I happened to be in Vernon, I found the silhouette of the church so remarkable that I absolutely had to paint it. It was the beginning of summer, still somewhat raw. Fresh foggy mornings were followed by sudden outbursts of sunshine whose hot rays could only slowly dissolve the mists surrounding every crevice of the edifice and covering the golden stones with an ideally vaporous envelope” (quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 25).
So Monet recalled, years later, the inception of the present Église de Vernon, a gloriously resplendent view from his inaugural painting campaign at Giverny, the town now indelibly linked with his name. Together with his future wife Alice and their combined eight children, Monet had arrived in this tranquil, rural hamlet during the last days of April 1883, setting up in a sprawling, pink stucco house just a few hundred meters from the Seine. “Once settled, I hope to produce masterpieces,” he wrote headily to Durand-Ruel in May, “because I like the countryside very much” (quoted in P. de Montebello, C.S. Moffett, J.N. Wood and D. Wildenstein, Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1978, pp. 15-16). Although in future years Monet would range widely over the surrounding landscape, during 1883—from June, when the spring rain ceased, through the first frost—he focused exclusively on the motif of the Seine, his lodestar since his earliest days as a painter, reassuringly familiar yet ever changing.
To paint the present canvas, Monet set up his easel in the meadows sloping down to the Seine at Vernonnet, some four kilometers downstream from Giverny, and looked diagonally across the river toward the larger village of Vernon, with its Gothic church of Notre-Dame. From this angle, the venerable structure was partially hidden behind the poplars on the Île Corday, one of many tiny islands that then dotted this stretch of the Seine. The sun-dappled plane of the river, dancing with fragmented reflections, fills the foreground of the canvas, and the grassy bank extends horizontally from edge to edge, emphasizing the mirror-like quality of the water. “There the landscape, shimmering in the iridescent light, was constantly changing,” Daniel Wildenstein has described Monet’s new home terrain. “It was Impressionism at its purest, registered instantaneously in a natural setting that was always new and endlessly absorbing” (ibid., p. 15).
Although the distance to the present motif was easily traversed on foot, Monet reached it instead in his bateau atelier, which he moored at a purpose-built boathouse on the Île aux Orties, near the confluence of the smaller Epte river with the Seine. “Drifting down the quiet river in his boat,” Andrew Forge has written, “he would watch with a hunter’s concentration for the precise moment when light shimmered on grass or on silver willow leaves or on the surface of the water. Suddenly or by degrees his motif would be revealed to him” (Monet at Giverny, London, 1975, n.p.).
Here, Monet was most likely struck by the sight of the late morning sun, high in the summer sky, illuminating the east-facing chevet of the church and the square crossing tower. The bright light transfigures the structure, dematerializing its enduring stone architecture, which here appears as ephemeral and insubstantial as the reflections on the water. The screen of poplars heightens this effect, subsuming the church into the natural landscape. “Instead of evoking the mysticism of religion,” Paul Tucker has written, “Monet emphasizes the wonders of nature, whose light and atmosphere literally invade the stone façade. It is nature and Monet’s ability to translate it into paint that triumph here, not the dogmas that had been the church’s initial raison d’être” (op. cit., 1995, p. 155).
Monet created two more views of the church at Vernon during the summer of 1883, each time moving further downstream, as though mapping the topography of the site (Wildenstein, nos. 843-844; Yamagata Museum of Art, and Christie’s, London, 27 June 1988, lot 77). Working close to his new home, in countryside that he found endlessly enchanting, Monet was already thinking in terms of the revolutionary serial approach that would define his art from the late 1880s onward. “This was the landscape he came to know most intimately,” James Wood has noted, “and its accessibility made possible the extended serial treatment that is the underlying structure for the work of the entire Giverny period” (op. cit., 1978, p. 11).
Monet in fact returned to paint at Vernon again in 1894, producing a unified series of six views of the village church from a single vantage point, in conditions that vary from hazy sun to dense fog (Wildenstein, nos. 1386-1391). During the previous two years, his major undertaking had been to paint another Gothic edifice, the cathedral at Rouen—which, in true agnostic fashion, he did not even enter until well into the campaign, and then only to attend a free choral recital. His work at Rouen involved long stints in a congested urban environment followed by extensive studio work, neither of which appealed to his plein air sensibilities. It represented a relief and a liberation to return home and to paint a country counterpart to the urban cathedral, a comparison that he underscored by exhibiting his new views of Vernon alongside the Rouen series in 1895.
Monet’s initial 1883 paintings of the church are noteworthy for their clear, bright light and the scintillating effect of myriad, differently colored touches. In 1894, by contrast, he modified this approach to create an evocative atmosphere that fills the scene and causes all the forms to become vaporous specters, suggesting that he was re-experiencing and reflecting on his earlier work from the site as much as he was observing and transcribing specific lighting conditions. Upon his arrival at Giverny in 1883, the motif of the church had served Monet triumphantly in his pursuit of plein air naturalism; a decade later, it became instead a vehicle for the artist’s increasingly decorative and abstract, late vision.
The present Église de Vernon has an exceptionally illustrious provenance. Monet released the canvas in 1890 to Durand-Ruel, who quickly found a buyer for it—a young Connecticut industrialist named Harris Whittemore. American audiences had received their first large-scale introduction to Impressionism only four years earlier, when Durand-Ruel mounted a pioneering group show at the American Art Association in New York. Whittemore may have visited this exhibition or seen the six paintings by Monet that his cousin Albert Spencer acquired from Durand-Ruel soon after, but it was not until a trip to France in 1888-1889 that he was won over wholeheartedly to the New Painting. Upon his return, he visited Durand-Ruel’s gallery in New York and selected L’Église de Vernon as his very first Impressionist acquisition.
Whittemore quickly ascended into the pantheon of the foremost Impressionist collectors in America, on par with the Havemeyers in New York and the Palmer Potters in Chicago. His collection eventually numbered more than thirty canvases each by Monet and Degas and at least 75 works by Cassatt. “It was Monet’s paintings, more than any advisor,” Ann Smith has written, “that shaped Harris’s collecting eye” (op. cit., 2009, p. 68). Although much of this discerning collection has since been dispersed, L’Église de Vernon has the great distinction of having never again changed hands on the market. Instead, this singularly important canvas, which inaugurated Harris Whittemore’s lifelong passion for collecting, has passed through generations of his descendants, remaining in the family’s possession ever since 1890—a remarkable 130 years.