When Claude Monet's family moved to Giverny in May of 1883, the village numbered only 279 inhabitants (fig. 1). Monet initially leased a two-acre property there, which he purchased as soon as it became available. Situated on an area of land locally referred to as Le Pressoir ("the cider press"), the new Monet home lay between the village road and the main road, Le chemin du Roy joining Vernon and Gasny. Monet's family was large--it comprised his lover Alice Hoschedé, her six children and his own two children from his marriage to his late wife Camille--and it increased the population of this tiny village by another ten people.
The painter soon wrote his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, "Once settled, I hope to produce masterpieces, because I like the countryside very much." (quoted in L. Venturi, Les Archives de l'Impressionnisme, Paris, 1939, I, p. 254). Daniel Wildenstein described how felicitously the painter had chosen his new home. Throughout the day, the sun's path follows the line of hills around Giverny, and therefore, "to paint what was reflected in the water, the movement of leaves before the light, the mist veiling the sun, a sunset or sunrise, Monet had only to follow the natural slope of the land from his house to the fields and meadows laced by water and trees. There the landscape, shimmering in the iridescent light, was constantly changing, and the hills--depending on the weather--seemed alternately purple and blue, close and far away. It was Impressionism at its purest, registered instantaneously in a natural setting that was always new and endlessly absorbing" (in Monet's Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism, New York, 1978, p. 15).
In early 1886, Monet had been delighted to receive an invitation to exhibit with the recently-formed society of independent Belgian artists, Les XX. He spent the first months of the year in Etretat, and returned to Giverny in March. He did not stay long, however, and throughout the year voyaged a great deal, traveling to Holland, Paris, and Brittany. Coucher de soleil à Giverny belongs to a group of works from 1886 where the painter, at home for a time, captured the effects of light and the charm of the surrounding countryside (Wildenstein nos. 1079-1083). It was painted from the vantage point of the upland road near Monet's house, facing westward and close to the farm of La Côte. The building visible on the left side of the painting is the town hall-school of Giverny. In a preparatory drawing now in the Musée Marmottan-Monet (no. 5129, fol. 3 v), Monet also included one of the buildings on the right, but omitted this detail in the finished painting.
Coucher de soleil à Giverny is primarily a study of the varied effects of light the painter was able to observe near his home. Monet's choice here of a relatively un-picturesque hillside and village building renders the painting's finished result all the more spectacular. The setting sun has transformed every detail of the scene, turning the sky rose, polishing the field to a silvery shine, and bathing the trees in warm, plum-colored shadows. As he would in his most successful paintings of the 1880s, here, Monet's patient attention to nuance turned fleeting moments into a timeless, incandescent image. The present painting is remarkable both for the spontaneity and sheer vivacity of the brushwork, and Monet's uniquely limpid palette. The variety to be found in the 1886 Giverny paintings is evidence of how diverse the landscape appeared to the painter at different times of day. For example, Meadow at Giverny, 1886 (Wildenstein no. 1083, fig. 2) was painted only a short time after Coucher de soleil à Giverny, but the autumn sunlight is rendered with a more staccato brushstroke and a brighter palette.
The early years at Giverny were those before 'le tout Paris' began trying to flock to Monet's door seeking a glimpse of the great man and his famous gardens. They were also the years before Monet's long travels in search of subject matter started wearying the painter. Within a few years, Monet would begin developing his series paintings, such as his 1890-1891 grainstacks near Giverny (fig. 3). Eventually, of course, he would stay closer to home in order to paint his beloved gardens. In 1886, however, the painter was still preoccupied with travel, and with exploring the countryside which was new to him. He spent days away, including frequent trips on the Seine to paint from his "floating studio." On these outings Monet would move from subject to subject, painting in succession--proceeding, for example, from a hill near his house, to the village or to a nearby town. Among the few to pen an account of Monet at work during the 1880s, Guy de Maupassant in late October 1885 wrote, "I often followed Claude Monet in his quest for impressions. No longer a painter, he had become, truly, a hunter."
This picture of Monet as a seeker resonates with what is known about the painter's tireless pursuit of the perfect scene, lighting effect, or weather phenomenon. Maupassant continued, "[Monet] walked along, followed by the children who carried his paintings, five or six canvases showing the same subject at different times of day and with different effects. He took them up or abandoned them as the changing sky dictated. And the painter stood before the motif, waiting, examining the sun and the shadows, in a few brushstrokes capturing a ray of sun or a passing cloud, which, scorning the fake or the conventional, he rapidly set down on canvas" (quoted in Wildenstein, op. cit., p. 209).
Despite his continuing financial difficulties in the 1880s, Monet chose to keep Coucher de soleil à Giverny, and did not sell the painting until 1922, just four years before his death. The purchaser was Kojiro Matsukata (1865-1950), a Yale University-educated Japanese shipping magnate and a pioneer in collecting Impressionist art. On his many travels, Matsukata worked with Durand-Ruel and several other dealers, seeking to locate Impressionist works, and he dreamed of establishing a museum in Japan that would give Japanese artists the opportunity to see work from the West. The collector's niece, Haru Matsukata Reischauer, described her uncle's first meeting with Monet, in 1921: "When Kojiro was introduced to Monet, he told the great man that young artists in Japan were studying his paintings through photographs and were most anxious to see the originals. It pleased Monet that Japanese artists were eager to see his paintings because he felt that Japan was the source of his art. Monet rarely allowed the members of his own family or even close friends like Clemenceau to enter his atelier, but he invited Kojiro in and showed him all his paintings, telling him to choose any he liked." (H. Reischauer, Samurai and Silk, Cambridge, 1986). That afternoon, Kojiro purchased sixteen paintings, and five months later returned to Giverny to acquire eighteen more.
Although he shipped many works directly to Japan, Matsukata was prompted by large government duties on the import of works of art to keep much of his collection in Paris and London. The works stored in London were destroyed in air raids during World War Two, while about 400 works in Paris, hidden in a Norman well, were recognized as French property under the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951. Eventually, the French government accessioned 29 works from Matsukata's collection and in a gesture of goodwill, returned 365 others. This led to the foundation of The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
(fig. 1) View of Giverny with the Seine in the distance, about 1933. BARCODE 20625177
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Meadow at Giverny, 1886. Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection, 39.670 BARCODE 20625412
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Grainstack (Sunset), 1891. Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Juliana Cheny Edwards Collection, 25.112 BARCODE 20625405