In 1878 the Monet family moved to Vétheuil, a country haven situated on a hill to the north of the Seine, and overlooking a bend in the river. Monet's house was located at one end of the village on the road that ran from Vétheuil to La Roche-Guyon, and his garden was across the road on the hill which sloped down to the banks of the Seine. From December 1878 he shared the house with Ernest and Alice Hoschedé, who had been among his leading patrons. It was at Vétheuil that Monet cared for his ailing wife Camille, and where he sadly buried her in 1879. Hoschedé was now destitute, and cognizant of Monet's open affair with his wife, seldom visited Vétheuil. The painter's relationship with Alice was rumored to have begun as early as 1876; the two would finally marry in 1891, following Hoschedé's death.
The present painting is among the most spontaneously inviting of Monet's many famous views of his home and gardens in Vétheuil painted from 1880-1881. Bright flashes of vibrant color and white highlights commingle with a glowing atmospheric haze that hangs over the houses of the town of Lavacourt in the distance. A rosy light illuminates the welcoming path through the garden gate. The brushstrokes that delineate overhanging trees and foliage appear to be animated with a life of their own. Although Monet used oil paint, in certain passages he draws freely with the brush. This is especially true in his treatment of greenery; the tree branches and bushes meander with an almost graphic linearity. A wooden fence and garden gate frame Monet's climbing nasturtiums, and point to the village across the Seine beyond.
The fence helps to illustrate Monet's burgeoning interest in Japanese ukiyo-e landscape prints, especially those of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Monet was an avid collector of works by these artists from Edo (renamed Tokyo when the city became the capital in 1868) and eventually amassed a collection of 231 Japanese prints, which he would prominently display at his home in Giverny. The influence of Japanese printmaking can be seen in some of the radically new compositional devices that appeared during the second half of the nineteenth century in works by Monet as well as other Impressionists such as Gustave Caillebotte. For example, Hiroshige's Asakusa Ricefields and the Torinomachi Festival, 1856-1858 (fig. 1) uses an overlapping grid structure to frame a vista, and arranges elements throughout the composition in order to lead the viewer's eye far into the distance beyond. The impact on Monet of prints such as this one has been well-established, and the present picture displays a remarkable confluence of such ukiyo-e devices, much prized by the painter.
After Camille's death, Monet avoided his favored garden subjects for a time. However, in 1881 he again began to find inspiration in the beauty surrounding his home and garden. In February of that year, the painter sold a cache of fifteen paintings to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, with the promise of more sales to come. A new sense of optimism had begun to come over him with these signs of increasing stability for his career and greater well-being for his family, which had swelled with the addition of Alice's six children. In the early spring Monet vacationed in the fishing port of Fécamp, and returned to Vétheuil around 10 April. The winter of 1881 had been a harsh one, and was significant for a disastrous inondation, or river flood, that occurred when the Seine overflowed its banks. The present picture is not only an image of the painter's garden and a view of the river, but is also a warm springtime glimpse of timeless nature that has returned to order after a recent period of chaos.
Monet's repeated use of specific, habitual subject matter during the 1880s anticipates the artist's series paintings, which he would first show at Durand-Ruel in the 1891 exhibition of his Grainstacks. During the spring of 1881, Monet painted two views of Alice Hoschedé in the garden on the terrace (Wildenstein, nos. 680-681), as well as a series of images of the staircase in the garden from slightly different angles (Wildenstein nos. 682-685). Some of these paintings, such as Jardin à Vétheuil, 1880, also included his or Alice's children (Wildenstein no. 685, fig. 2). Monet painted one other composition in a similar size and using subject matter similar to the present painting (Wildenstein no. 691, fig. 3). In his vertical composition of the garden gate at Vétheuil, Monet positioned himself much more closely to the fence, and as a result this painting reveals little of the surrounding countryside. His brushstroke is even freer, which gives the painting a sketchy, improvised quality.
Taken together, the paintings from the garden at Vétheuil form an extraordinary proto-series that denotes the Impressionist preoccupation with gardens, with leisure, and with images of domestic life. The burst of paintings of the garden may owe something to the painter's knowledge that he would soon be departing from a place which held so many memories. Throughout the spring and summer Monet was already making plans to leave Vétheuil as his lease would expire in October. By mid-December 1881, the Monet family departed from this home forever.
The garden would become his preeminent subject at Giverny within a short period of time, but La Porte du Jardin à Vétheuil is a reminder of how consistently interesting Monet found flowers throughout his career. Emile Taboureux, a regular contributor to La Vie Moderne visited Monet at Vétheuil in 1880 and spoke with him about the gardens there. During Taboureux's visit, Monet was at pains to demonstrate the spontaneous quality of his painting, and his direct approach to what he observed in nature. Taboureux reported on his conversation with the painter:
"'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!'" Monet exclaimed, "'But I never have had one, and personally I don't understand why anybody would want to shut themselves up in some room.' 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 it was known even at the time of Taboureux's visit how Monet worked and reworked his preliminary studies into completed paintings, the myth that the painter completed his works en plein air was one that Monet himself helped perpetuate. He once expressed the wish that he had been born blind, and could see everything in the world with an innocent eye, as if he were seeing it for the first time. He believed that only the first glimpse of his subject was the authentic one. His first sketches were then painstakingly developed into finished works like the present painting, a work that nonetheless attests to Monet's desire to render, as Jules Castignary observed in 1874, not the scene itself, but the impression that it produced on him.
Despite his avowed interest in capturing nature's momentary impressions, Monet was never interested in freezing the world in his painting as a camera would. Unlike a snapshot, the present painting conveys a sense of the natural world experienced as duration, through the pleasure of a drawn out afternoon spent gazing at the Seine. In La Porte du Jardin à Vétheuil, Monet has woven together the visual images of the flowers near to him, and the houses glimpsed in the distance, and harmonized them into a single vision of time, light, color, and lyric calm.
(fig. 1) Utagawa Hiroshige, Asakusa Ricefields and the Torinomachi Festival, 1856-8. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. BARCODE 25238600
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Jardin à Vétheuil, 1881. Courtesy of The Norton Simon Foundation. BARCODE 25238631
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, La Porte du Jardin, Vétheuil, 1881. BARCODE 25238624