When Claude Monet painted Les meules à Giverny, the masterwork offered for sale in the Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale at Christie’s New York on 14 May, he had been living in the now-famous small, rural village since 1883. After a journey along the Seine from Argenteuil to Vetheuil and Poissy, he found a tranquil spot in which to settle down. While the Seine would continue to remain one of the artist’s major sources of inspiration, his garden and the local surroundings would allow him to develop into the modern master we admire today.
In this village, close enough from Paris to stay connected to the art world, Monet would turn his back on the spectacle of the city and embark on a new journey. In Giverny, he would become a landscape architect: he diverted a river to create a water-lily pond, and built a new studio to be able to work on a series of visionary curved canvases, representing the ultimate immersion into a landscape of water and flowers. In 1922, he would gift the Nymphéas (Waterlilies) murals to the people of France to help restore their spirit, damaged by the trauma of World War I.
In Giverny, Monet’s art matured and developed. Les meules à Giverny belongs to this period, when Monet finally followed his own path, free of the concerns and doubts that had plagued his early career.
The mid-1880s were a turning point for the artist. Since the late 1860s, he and his family had endured financial crisis, mostly due to Monet’s extravagant living habits. Beyond the pressure of unpaid bills, the artist’s marginalised position in the French art world, where he existed on the fringes of acceptability, raised career doubts. Moments of deep depression would also take hold, following the death of his first wife, Camille, in 1879.
Claude Monet, Self Portrait, 1886
But the seeds of new beginnings had been planted. Shortly after his move to Normandy, in 1884, the artist began exhibiting in group shows at the Georges Petit Gallery — at the time, Paris’s most prestigious Contemporary art gallery. Joining its stable signalled that Monet had finally arrived, as Impressionism moved from the margin into the mainstream.
Monet still had ties, too, to Paul Durand-Ruel, the dealer who had invested much in the nascent genre, and whose faithful support was starting to pay off. He had bought Les meules à Giverny in September 1885, only a short time after Monet finished the composition. Well aware of the North American appetite for French painting, Durand-Ruel took the piece to New York for two exhibitions, one held at American Art Galleries and the other at the National Academy of Design. The latter was called The Impressionists of Paris and marks the dealer’s first U.S. success and the beginning of Monet’s international recognition.
Beyond the financial security and professional notoriety that came with critical and market recognition, Giverny was also the place where Monet’s personal life found a renewed sense of equilibrium. It is the same sense of peace that inhabits Les meules à Giverny. There, Monet was able to provide long-term stability for his large recomposed family, which now included Alice Hoschedé, her six children, and his two sons — Jean and Michel who were raised by Alice after Camille’s death. Alice had come to live with the Monets after her husband, Ernest, who had been one of the artist’s early patrons, had gone bankrupt in 1878, though she would only become his wife in 1892.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), Les meules à Giverny, 1885. Oil on canvas. 24 ½ x 31 7/8 in. (64.9 x 81.1 cm.)
In Les meules à Giverny, Monet chronicles time by recording the same place from different viewpoints over a long period. This painting is part of a larger body of works that occupied Monet in 1884 and 1885. In these paintings, Monet shares with the viewer the pleasure of depicting a familiar meadow, one in which he and his family enjoyed picnics after long walks through hillside paths.
The poplars in the background of the painting are the same as those in Meules, soleil voilé painted in 1884. But in Les meules à Giverny, the lower branches have grown back since Monet last painted the trees a year earlier. In another painting of 1885, Pré à Giverny, Alice and Michel rest against the one of the haystacks in that same field, allowing the view to witness the logical conclusion of the walk from home to the banks of L’Epte, the river behind the poplars. Of course, Monet revisited both the haystack and the passage of time in his celebrated series of the 1890s.
Like most of Monet’s paintings, this picture is a slice of life — an intimate private moment. The meadow is an open-air studio, where some family members — Alice and her daughter Germaine, along with the two ‘little ones’, Michel Monet and Jean-Pierre Hoschedé — enter the frame but stay in shadow to better reinforce their role as generic figures. They are off-centre, part of the painting but not its subject.
As France was entering the industrial age and struggling to recover from the financial crash of 1882, Monet’s frozen moment in the meadow resonates on many levels
The figures help us focus on the moment: we look at the boys’ hats, two simple dots of yellow that echo the warm hue of the haystacks, at the play of the coloured shadows on the haystacks, and at how light transforms colours. But the red dot of Alice’s parasol reminds us that Monet is a man of his time, that he knows about colour theory and how complementary colours, such as green and red will enhance each other to make a strong visual impact. In Les meules à Giverny, we begin to see how, from the 1880s on, Monet would take Impressionism in a new direction; the brushwork is looser and thicker than it was during the 1870s, the paint becoming equivalent to the object he paints.
But looking further beyond the snapshot quality of the scene, Alice and the children in their city clothes bring to our attention the modernity of Monet’s depiction. Because of the commuter rail, city dwellers could travel with their families to the countryside and still be close enough to Paris to conduct business. In the mid-1880s, at a time when France was entering the industrial age and struggling to recover from the economic crisis caused by the financial crash of 1882, Monet’s frozen moment in the meadow resonates on many levels. The artist’s depiction of an eternal France — defined by the landscape and an ancestral agrarian culture while incorporating a slice of modern life — must certainly have struck a chord with Parisians who watched the countryside undergo inevitable changes between centuries.
While such change might be cause for anxiety, Les meules à Giverny offers a timeless moment of harmony between the natural and modern worlds. Like many of Monet’s works, it points to man’s evolving relationship with nature — whilst acknowledging nature’s unchanging capacity to provide, nourish and — through its beauty — restore.
Veronique Chagnon-Burke is Academic Director of Christie’s Education in the US
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