Le Givre is part of a group of eighteen views of Argenteuil that Monet painted during the winter of 1874-1875, depicting the town blanketed in snow or frost (Wildenstein, nos. 348-363; figs. 1-2). In these paintings the artist explored the ephemeral effects of winter weather in its myriad aspects: deep snow in brilliant sunshine, and snow falling from a leaden gray sky, light hoar-frost glistening on the frozen earth, snow melting along a country road at sunset. Discussing this group of snowscapes, Paul Tucker has written, "These views are some of the most beautiful paintings that Monet produced during all of his years in Argenteuil. His work of the 1870s is generally thought of in terms of summer sunlight sparkling on the waters of the Seine, but, in fact, many pictures from this period depict a winter atmosphere, hushed snow-covered roads, and leafless trees stretching toward gray, overcast skies" (Monet at Argenteuil, New Haven, 1982, p. 48).
When Monet moved to Argenteuil in December 1871, it was a prosperous suburban town of around eight thousand inhabitants. Prominently situated on the right bank of the Seine eleven kilometers west of Paris, the town was a popular destination during the summer months for recreational boaters and weekend vacationers. Monet remained at Argenteuil until January 1878, producing at least a hundred and eighty views of the agréable petite ville, as guidebooks of the time called the town. This period has been widely recognized as one of the high points of Monet's long and prolific career. Tucker describes the Argenteuil landscapes as "synonymous with Impressionism and a touchstone for the development of Western visual culture," and declares, "It was during his time at Argenteuil that Monet developed his unique vision of landscape painting, at once authentic and idyllic, suffused with light, atmosphere, and the complexities of contemporaneity" (The Impressionists at Argenteuil, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 14).
The eighteen snowscapes that Monet painted at Argenteuil in 1874-1875 all depict motifs not far from the artist's home on the Boulevard Saint-Denis, at the eastern end of town near the railroad station (fig. 3). The weather was unusually severe that winter, with snowfall reaching record highs. One local newspaper reported in December 1874, "Finally, the snow is here, real snow, that we haven't seen for many years. It is not fine white powder, scattered on the roofs and trees. No: it is very much that of Father Winter" (quoted in Impressionists in Winter: Effets de neige, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 224).
The present painting was probably executed in late January or February, when the deep snow had been replaced by a light, luminous frost. It depicts an open expanse of meadow, bordered at the left by a rapidly receding thicket of trees. In the background are visible the white-washed walls and terracotta roofs of the houses lining the Boulevard Saint-Denis. Monet's chief concern was to record the subtle variations of light on this snow-covered landscape. He uses a restricted palette of blues and browns to suggest the play of shadows over the left side of the scene. The houses, in contrast, are illuminated by a soft, wintry sunlight, which Monet described using delicate touches of rose and cream. Describing a closely related picture, Tucker has written, "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" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2000, p. 154).
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 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: "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., 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).
An important source of inspiration for Monet's winter landscapes was the graphic art of Japan. The painter 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 compositions and use of a winding road to lead the eye into the scene as used in many of Monets winter landscapes, is almost certainly indebted to the innovations of Japanese printmakers such as Hokusai and Hiroshige (fig. 4). 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 exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1994, p. 252). The next day, Pissarro, who himself had also devoted many canvases to snow filled landscapes (fig. 5), 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).
Monet's snowscapes from Argenteuil were acquired by several important early collectors of the artist's work, including Dr. Georges de Bellio, Henri and Louisine Havemeyer, and Alexander Cassatt. Examples are now housed in major museums around the world, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Musée Monet Marmottan in Paris, the Kunstmuseum in Basel, and the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo (Wildenstein, nos. 348, 351, 356, 357a, 359 and 362).
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Neige à Argenteuil, 1874-1875. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Barcode 23670549
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Train dans la neige à Argenteuil, 1875. Private collection, New York. Barcode 23670556
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Boulevard Saint-Denis, Argenteuil, en hiver, 1875. Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
(fig. 4) Katsushika Hokusai, Reconstruction of the Ponto de Sano in the Province of Kozuke, 1831-1832. Claude Monet Foundation, Giverny.
(fig. 5) Camille Pissarro, La Maison de Piette à Montfoucault, 1874. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.