The present picture represents Monet's house and garden at Vétheuil, where he moved in September 1878. The village of Vétheuil is situated on a hill to the north of the Seine overlooking a bend in the river; the beauty of the surrounding landscape was a primary inspiration for the painter at the end of the 1870's. Monet's house stood at one end of the village on the road that ran from Vétheuil to La Roche-Guyon (fig. 1), and his garden was across this road on the hill which sloped down to the banks of the Seine. He was immensely pleased with his new home, which he described to a friend as "on the banks of the Seine at Vétheuil, in a ravishing spot" (D. Wildenstein, op. cit., letter no. 136).
Although the rent was a modest 600 francs a year, the artist had a hard time getting by; beginning in December 1878, he shared the house with Alice and Ernest Hoschedé, who had been major patrons of Monet, Manet and other Impressionists, but were then bankrupt. The relations between the two families were extremely close; indeed, following the death of Camille Monet in September 1879, Claude Monet and Alice Hoschedé had an open affair (rumored to have begun in 1876), and they eventually married after Ernest Hoschedé's death in 1891.
Le jardin de l'artiste à Vétheuil is one of four closely related views of the house and garden which Monet painted beginning in the summer of 1881. The picture which was probably the first in the series is now in a private collection; its canvas is the smallest in size of the four, and it shows the stairs unpopulated and from a close viewpoint (fig. 2). For the next two works, the artist moved his easel back along the garden path in order to paint the scene from a slightly more distant perspective. One of these pictures, now in the Norton Simon Museum, is likewise without figures (fig. 3). The third work in the series--the present painting--is the first to include the figures of two small children on the stairs. That Monet painted these three canvases in a relatively short period is indicated by the sunflowers, whose degree of growth and bloom is virtually identical in all the pictures. The change in the direction of the sunlight suggests that the painting in the Norton Simon Museum was created in the morning, and that the present work was made around noon. (Of course, it cannot be determined whether or not this was on the same day.) Monet concluded the series with a large canvas, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (fig. 4). That picture is nearly twice the size of the first in the group, its viewpoint is still more distant from the stairs and the sunflowers, and it has three figures rather than two. The clouds in the painting in the National Gallery are similar in form and placement to the clouds in the Norton Simon picture; it has been suggested that the large canvas was painted in the studio on the basis of the first three works in the series (J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 155), a proposal that cannot as yet be either confirmed or disproved. The series as a whole is an extraordinary example of the Impressionist interest in the garden and leisure as subjects for serious painting of contemporary life; and the vivid, high-key palette and lively brushwork of these pictures successfully evoke the splendor of a summer's day.
The two children on the stairs are Jean-Pierre Hoschedé and Michel Monet (fig. 5). Jean-Pierre was born on August 20, 1877 and Michel Monet on March 17, 1878, and they were respectfully four and three at the time of the painting. The two boys were great friends. As Jean-Pierre recalled as an adult, "Michel and I were an inseparable pair, always together, receiving from her [Alice Hoschedé] the same treatment, never with any difference--our ages were the same within a few months."
In the foreground of the painting are a pair of large blue and white vases. Monet is said to have acquired these pots in Holland in 1871 and they seem to be authentic Delft faïence. The same pots appear in the garden paintings he made in Argenteuil (fig. 6), and they no doubt had a certain sentimental value for the artist.
Monet's passion for flowers and gardens is legendary, and they constituted a major theme of his work from his earliest days to the end of his career. Indeed he once said, "I perhaps owe it to flowers for having become a painter." The artist was especially fond of painting his own gardens, first at Argenteuil, then at Vétheuil and finally at Giverny, where the garden became the pre-eminent subject for the artist. At Argenteuil between 1872 and 1876, he painted around twenty-five images of his garden. Many of these pictures are peopled with his wife, children and friends, and they convey the comforts of domesticity and companionship. A typical example is Le jardin de l'artiste à Argenteuil (fig. 6), where we see young Jean Monet standing at the center of the picture, surrounded by flowers and watched over by his mother Camille.
Monet, however, abandoned the garden as a subject in the late 1870's. No doubt the death of his wife and the financial hardship which he suffered at that time made this subject antipathetic. It was only in the summer of 1881 at Vétheuil that he returned to this favorite theme and again painted images of his family surrounded by the luxuriance and exuberance of his garden. As such, these pictures are highly suggestive documents which record the renewed optimism the artist experienced in 1881.
Following a visit to Monet's house at Vétheuil in 1880, Emile Taboureux reported on a conversation he had near the site recorded in the present painting:
"Now then," I said without further ado, "perhaps you would be so kind as to show me to your studio?" At the sound of that word, sparks flew from Monet's eyes.
"My studio! But I never have had one, and personally I don't
understand why anybody would want to shut themselves up in some
room. Maybe for drawing, sure; but not for painting."
And with a gesture as expansive as the horizon, encompassing the
entire Seine, now flecked with the golds of the dying sun; the
hills, bathed in cool shadows; and the whole of Vétheuil itself,
which seemed to be dozing in the April sunlight that sires white
lilacs, primaveras, and buttercups:
"That's my studio!" (quoted in C.F. Stuckey, Monet: A
Retrospective, New York, 1985, p. 90)
Although the garden was a favorite subject for many Impressionists, including Manet, Caillebotte, and Renoir, no artist equalled Monet in his dedication to this theme. As Professor Robert Herbert has written:
Of all the Impressionists it was Monet who was chiefly responsible for elevating the garden to the ranks of the most admired and influential paintings of the early modern era" (R. Herbert, Impressionism, New Haven, 1988, p. 259).
As the most important painter of the garden in the nineteenth century, Monet has a significant place in the tradition of the locus amoenus in Western civilization. A Latin expression which literally means "pleasant place," locus amoenus is the term for hte ideal of a natural spot of such extraordinary beauty that it induces in the viewer a sense of profound well-being. This concept is enormously fertile and fluid, especially since the imagery of each genre of ideal landscapes influenced that of the others. In literature the concept embraces both arcadia and Eden, while in the history of art and architecture it is at the root of villa and garden designs as well as much of landscape painting. The standard constituent elements of the locus amoenus were summarized by Libanius, the Greek rhetorician and a friend of the Emperor Julian, in the fourth century A.D.: "...the causes of delight [in landscape] are bodies of water and villas and gardens and soft-breezes and flowers" (quoted in E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Princeton, 1953, p. 197). All these elements were present at Monet's garden at Vétheuil, as they would be later at Giverny.
On a moral and psychological plane, the locus amoenus has two important features. First, it is a site suited for love. In the words of the Roman poet Petronius, it is "Dignus amore locus" (Carmina 131). Second, it is the perfect setting for philosophical reflection and artistic creativity. Virgil in the Buccolics, for instance, invokes the muse of poetry in the locus amoenus: "Begin [Muse], since now we sit upon soft grass. Yes, now each field and every tree is in flower, now the woods are in leaf, now the year is at the fairest" (Buccolics, III, 55-58). Another example is the Greek poet Lacon who writes: "More sweetly will you sing, if you will sit down beneath the wild olive tree, and the groves in this place" (quoted in E.R. Curtius, op. cit., p. 190). That is to say, in the locus amoenus the fertility of nature in spring and summer inspires the creativity of the artist.
In the nineteenth century, as before, these ideals were standard components of the conception of the landscape. The most obvouis examples are provided by the Romantics in England and Germany, such as Wordsworth and Goethe, who celebrated nature for both its creative and recreative power. This concept was very much alive in France as well, where it lay behind the Impressionist interest in leisure and the garden.
Because of the power and persistence of the concept of the locus amoenus, it has had great influence on the history of Western art. It reappears in ever-new manifestations, from the wall-painting of Empress Livia's dining room in the first century A.D. (now in the Museo Nazionale della Terme, Rome) to the Renaissance gardens at Tivoli to the Arcadian landscapes of Claude Lorrain and Poussin in the Baroque. Monet was the greatest exponent of this concept in the modern period, and the paintings he made in his gardens at Argenteuil, Vétheuil and Giverny fully convey the serenity and creativity associated with this ideal.
For Monet, his villa and garden in the country were the site of the greatest happiness and productivity. In Le jardin de l'artiste à Vétheuil, one can see both the profound delight Monet received from the love of his children and family and the sheer joy he felt in painting the luxuriant flowers of his garden.
(fig. 1) Monet's house at Vétheuil
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Le jardin de l'artiste à Vétheuil, 1881 Private Collection
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Le jardin de l'artiste à Vétheuil, 1881 Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California
The present painting
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Le jardin de l'artiste à Vétheuil, 1881 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 5) Jean-Pierre Hoschedé and Michel Monet at Giverny
The present painting (detail)
(fig. 6) Claude Monet, Le jardin de l'artiste à Argenteuil, 1873 The Art Institute, Chicago