Although almost all the Impressionist painters experimented periodically with the depiction of snow-covered landscapes, none treated the subject with as much persistence or creativity as Monet. Between 1865 and 1895, Monet painted more than a hundred such scenes, exploring the ephemeral aspects of winter weather in its myriad aspects: deep snow in brilliant sunshine, snow falling from a leaden gray sky, light hoar-frost glistening on the frozen earth, snow melting along a country road, surging ice-floes on the surface of the Seine. He painted snowscapes on the Normandy coast, at Argenteuil, and at Giverny, and even traveled to Norway to capture "the white immensity" of terrain, with its "stupefying effects" (letter to Blanche Hoschedé, 1 March 1895). Charles Moffett has written, "The snowscapes of the Impressionists--especially those by Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro--are among their greatest accomplishments. These paintings convey a sense of peace, stillness, and quiet beauty that is unique in the history of modern art... and include some of the most beautiful, daring, and experimental paintings created during the second half of the nineteenth century" (Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1998, pp. 14 and 22).
The passion with which Monet pursued plein air painting in winter was legendary even during his own lifetime. In 1867, for example, a journalist reported seeing Monet hard at work outdoors in Honfleur in the dead of winter: "It was cold enough to split rocks. We perceived a foot warmer, then an easel, then a gentleman bundled up, in three overcoats, gloves on his hands, his face half frozen; it was Monet studying an effect of snow" (quoted in G. Tinterow, Origins of Impressionism, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994, pp. 249-250). Monet himself described his winter exploits in a letter to Durand-Ruel dated January 1885, the year before he painted the present canvas: "I am in the snow up to my neck; I have a whole series of paintings in progress. I have only one fear, that the weather may change" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 34). Likewise, the artist wrote to the critic Gustave Geffroy from Norway in 1896, "Dear friend, a brief note just to assure you of my fate, so that you don't suppose that I have died from the cold. I have never suffered, to the great amazement of the Norwegians! I painted today in the snow, which falls endlessly. You would have laughed if you could have seen me completely white, with icicles hanging from my beard like stalactites" (quoted in ibid., p. 35).
The present snowscape was painted at Limetz, a village about two kilometers south of Giverny. Monet had moved to Giverny in April 1883 and lived there until his death more than four decades later. Situated at the confluence of the Seine and the Epte about forty miles northwest of Paris, Giverny was a picturesque farming community of less than three hundred residents in Monet's day. Upon his arrival there, Monet and his family rented a large, pink stucco house on two acres of land. When the property came up for sale in 1890, the artist purchased it at the asking price of 22,000 francs, telling Durand-Ruel that he was "certain of never finding a better situation or more beautiful countryside" (quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 175).
In addition to painting the celebrated gardens that he planted on his property at Giverny, Monet was fascinated by the landscape near his home and explored it in all seasons. Following his return from a three-month voyage to Bordighera on the Italian Riviera in early 1884, Monet seems to have been newly inspired by the motifs available at Giverny and produced almost eighty paintings of the region, including the present canvas, during the next two years. Although he worked at Étretat for several months in the fall and winter of 1885 and took a brief, two-week excursion to Holland during the tulip season in 1886, he focused his attention primarily on the region around his new home. Paul Hayes Tucker has written, "It may have been... the amount of time he had spent away from Alice and his family that caused him to concentrate on the Giverny area for new subjects to paint upon his return from the south. This concentration resulted in nearly eighty paintings that, like his views of the south, are remarkably diverse. There are pictures of the Seine and its tributary, the Epte, in virtually every season; there are charming scenes of winding country roads and houses nestled into the rolling hills. Although most of these are set in and around Giverny, many were painted in neighboring towns--Bennecourt, Port-Villez, Limetz, and Vernon--suggesting, again like his views of the south, a new-found freedom to expand his repertoire as well as his base of operations" (ibid., p. 120).
Effet de neige à Limetz is one of three snow scenes that Monet painted in and around Giverny in January 1886 (Wildenstein, nos. 1055-1057). He had also worked outdoors at Giverny the previous January, when the average temperature in the area was 6 Celsius, and had produced a series of nine snowscapes (W., nos. 961-968). In the present canvas, Monet depicts the main street of Limetz, close to the western edge of the village, with the hills of Port-Villez in the background. Another of the 1886 snow scenes was painted on the road between Limetz and Giverny, with the first houses of Giverny visible to the left of the road and the hills on the right bank of the Epte in the background (W., no. 1057). Monet painted his third winter scene from 1886 back home in Giverny, looking southeast over the rooftops of the village from the hillside near his house (W., no. 1055).
The present painting is noteworthy for its dynamic composition, with the snow-covered road plunging into depth. This was a pictorial structure that Monet explored repeatedly in his snow scenes of the 1870s and 1880s (figs. 1-2). Here, Monet appears to have set up his easel in the road itself, creating a rigorously geometric, X-type of composition with the perspective axes meeting at the very center of the canvas. The line of the mountains in the background serves as a horizontal counterpoint to the strong orthogonals, while the distribution of trees and houses to either side of the road lends breadth to the composition. The empty foreground and the presence of only a single figure produce a palpable sense of stillness and isolation. Monet's chief concern was to record the subtle variations of light on this snowy landscape. His palette is a muted symphony of blue-grays, broken whites, and ochres, enlivened with occasional flecks of red, violet, and goldenrod. Paul Tucker has written about another snow scene, "The snow provided Monet with ample opportunity to enliven his scene, not only through its texture, density, and temperature but also through its varied responses to light. Some areas of the landscape appear to glow, while others have absorbed the blue-gray tonalities of the sky and appear deeper and more somber. Such subtle effects attest to Monet's sensitivity to the ways that snow reveals itself" (The Impressionists at Argenteuil, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 154).
An important source of inspiration for Monet's winter landscapes was the graphic art of Japan. Monet began collecting Japanese woodcut prints as early as 1856 and owned more than two hundred examples by the end of his life, including at least a dozen snow scenes. The dynamic structure of the present painting, with the road leading the eye into the scene, is almost certainly indebted to the innovations of Japanese printmakers such as Hokusai and Hiroshige (fig. 3). Monet and the other Impressionists also seem to have associated their snowscapes more generally with the aesthetic vocabulary of Japonisme. In 1893, Pissarro, Rodin, and Monet visited an exhibition of Japanese art together, after which Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien, "Good God, this decides in our favor. There are some gray sunsets that are extraordinarily impressionist" (quoted in G. Tinterow, op. cit., p. 252). The next day, Pissarro sent another letter to Lucien in which he stated, "Hiroshige is a wonderful Impressionist. Myself, Monet, and Rodin are in rapture over him. I am glad to have made my effects of snow and flood; the Japanese artists give me confirmation of our visual choice" (quoted in ibid., p. 252).
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Route à Louveciennes, effet de neige, 1869-1870. Sold, Christie's New York, 1 November 2005, Lot 16.
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, La route à Vétheuil, l'hiver, 1879. Gtesborg Kunstmuseum.
(fig. 3) Katsushika Hokusai, Reconstruction of the Ponto de Sano in the Province of Kozuke, 1831-1832. Claude Monet Foundation, Giverny.