This sun-drenched canvas is one in an important series of fifteen paintings that Monet executed during the summer and early autumn of 1901, showing the picturesque village of Vétheuil on the right bank of the Seine (Wildenstein, nos. 1635-1649). The artist had lived and worked at Vétheuil from 1878 to 1881, a watershed moment in his career, and his later views of the town may be understood in part as a nostalgic return to a motif which held deep personal and artistic resonance for him. At the same time, the 1901 paintings of Vétheuil are significant examples of the distinctive serial approach that Monet had come to practice, in which virtually identical views of the motif vary only in their lighting effects and weather conditions. The Vétheuil pictures reveal the same fascination with the evanescent aspects of nature that characterize such celebrated late series as those Monet painted of his water garden at Giverny and of the Thames River in London. Discussing the significance of this period in Monet's oeuvre, Paul Tucker has written: "Between 1900 and his death in 1926, Monet produced some of the most novel paintings of his career...that today are justifiably hailed as landmarks of late Impressionism. Filled with beauty, daring, and bravura, they stand as eloquent witness to an aging artist's irrepressible urge to express his feelings in front of nature. They also attest to his persistent desire to reinvent the look of landscape and to leave a legacy of significance" (in Monet in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 14).
Even at the outset of the new century, Vétheuil remained an idyllic, agrarian hamlet of only a few hundred inhabitants. Situated 37 miles (60 km.) northwest of Paris, the town stands on a hill overlooking a gentle bend in the Seine. Vétheuil's major landmark is the Romanesque church of Notre-Dame, which occupies a commanding position in the heart of the community (fig. 1). With neither a bridge nor a rail station, and only minimal industry, Vétheuil showed little evidence of the encroaching modernity that had become endemic elsewhere in the region. Shortly after settling there in 1878, the artist described the town in a letter to Eugène Maurer as "a ravishing spot from which I should be able to extract some things that aren't bad" (quoted in M. Clarke and R. Thomson, Monet: The Seine and the Sea, 1878-1883, exh. cat., National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 17).
Monet's fifteen views of Vétheuil from 1901 were all painted from Lavacourt, a small village on the opposite bank of the Seine. In July, frustrated by the stifling heat in his studio at Giverny, and unable to work in his water garden because of renovations, Monet began to have his chauffeur drive him and his wife Alice to Lavacourt in the afternoons, a distance of less than 8 miles (12 km.) that was easily traversed in the family's new Panhard-Levassor motor car. By the end of the month, the artist had rented a modest house at Lavacourt with a second-floor balcony and an excellent view across the river to Vétheuil. Pleased by this motif, he painted there nearly every day until October, when he wrote to Durand-Ruel, "I have undertaken a series of views of Vétheuil that I thought I would be able to finish quickly and which have taken me all summer" (quoted in ibid., p. 52). Once given the opportunity to view the completed paintings, the artist's dealers quickly realized their commercial potential. During the first three months of 1902, Monet sold eight canvases to Bernheim-Jeune--some of which were later acquired by Durand-Ruel (including the present picture)--and two to Boussod, Valadon et Cie., netting the artist a total of 80,000 francs--enough to cover the cost of the ongoing work on his gardens and to pay for the Panhard-Levassor several times over.
The fifteen Vétheuil paintings were all executed from precisely the same viewpoint, on canvases that were either square, or nearly square, in format. The village itself is pressed into the upper third of the canvas, with the larger lower section given over to the expanse of the Seine. The church of Notre-Dame forms the focal point of the pyramidal composition, rising proudly and protectively over the town's quaint cluster of whitewashed houses. In the present canvas, a stiff breeze ripples the surface of the water, breaking up the reflections of the town that appear prominently in some of the companion pictures. The water shimmers in the sunlight; the landscape is suffused in the golden, late afternoon light of a summer's day. In other pictures of this series, Monet rendered Vétheuil earlier in the afternoon (fig. 2) or the rosy glow of sunset (fig. 3). Discussing this group of paintings, John House concludes, "For Monet, the distinctive quality of the site lay in what he called the enveloppe--its distinctive light and atmosphere" (in op. cit., exh. cat., Boston, 1998, p. 9).
Monet had painted several similar views of Vétheuil when he lived there in the late 1870s. Particularly close in composition are four great landscapes which Monet executed during 1879 in a somewhat wider format (W. 531-534; fig. 4). Although Monet's handling in the 1901 canvases is much freer and less detailed, the motif is nearly identical in the two series. Paul Tucker has written, "These paintings were unabashed retreats to pictures he had done of the same site during his stay in Vétheuil more than two decades earlier, and were suffused with sweet nostalgia for the time he had spent in that village some twenty years earlier" (op. cit., p. 39). Andrew Forge has suggested a more specific reason for Monet's renewed exploration of Vétheuil in 1901. His stepdaughter Suzanne had just died, and both he and Alice were in deep mourning. "There must have been some connection between this sadness and his return to Vétheuil, the place where [his first wife] Camille had died and where he and Alice had started their lives together some twenty years before. In these canvases, personal memories and memories of work were interwoven" (in Monet, Chicago, 1995, p. 60).
Vétheuil indeed held artistic as well as personal significance for Monet in 1901. The years that he spent there between 1878 and 1881 marked a key juncture in his work--"a decisive moment of personal and artistic reassessment...[and] the most momentous change in the career of the most revolutionary Impressionist" (C. Stuckey et al., Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point, exh. cat., University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1998, pp. 13 and 41). Following his move to Vétheuil, Monet entirely abandoned the contemporary themes that had dominated his earlier work and he began to focus instead on the description of fugitive aspects of nature seen in changing light. This nascent serial technique laid the groundwork for Monet's most important later production. By 1901, Monet was hard at work on two of the most challenging and innovative serial undertakings of his career: the water garden and the Thames. His return to Vétheuil at this time may represent an effort to re-engage with the site of the earliest experiments in his distinctive and innovative mode of rendering the landscape.
More generally, the 1901 paintings of Vétheuil reflect Monet's mounting interest in the latter years of his career in reworking themes from his own previous painting. His views of the beaches and cliffs at Pourville from 1896-1897, for instance, constitute a renewed exploration of motifs that had occupied him during the early 1880s, while the Thames series of 1899-1901 was the fulfillment of a long-cherished plan to revisit sites that he had painted in 1871 while living in London. As the artist told François Thiébault-Sisson around the turn of the century, "Ever since I turned sixty, I have had the idea of undertaking, for each of the types of motif which had in turn shared my attention, a sort of synthesis in which I would sum up in one canvas, sometimes two, my past impressions and sensations. I would have to travel a great deal and for a long time, to revisit one by one the staging posts of my life as a painter and to verify my past feelings" (quoted in J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 31).
Seven of the fifteen views that Monet painted of Vétheuil in 1901 are now housed in major museum collections: the Pushkin Museum (W. 1635), the Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal (W. 1641), the Art Institute of Chicago (W. 1643 and 1645), the Musée d'Orsay (W. 1644), the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille (W. 1646), and the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo (W. 1648).
(fig. 1) View of Vétheuil from Lavacourt. Barcode 23670495
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Vétheuil, aprés-midi, 1901. Sold Christie's New York, 4 May 2005, lot 18.
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, Vétheuil, 1901, oil on canvas, 34¾ x 36 in. (88.3 x 91.5 cm). Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection, 1933.1161, The Art Institute of Chicago. Barcode 23670532
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Vétheuil en été, 1879. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Barcode 23670518