Le parc Monceau is one of three exceptional depictions of an urban garden, located in the eighth arrondissement of Paris, that Monet painted in the first half of 1878. Monet employed in this painting a subtle interplay between light and shadow which became an essential aspect of his own brand of Impressionism during the 1870s. Bright sun picks out a group of figures in the distance, while nearby bushes and flowering trees are enveloped in warm, spring shadows. Here Monet has situated himself in what seems to be a painter's blind, at a distance where he can observe the life of the park but where he is not himself observed. The best-known of Monet's other two paintings of Parc Monceau from this same year is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Wildenstein, no. 466; fig. 1). In that work, the painter has situated himself much closer to the well-dressed figures taking their leisure. His slight remove from them is, however, palpable. This is also true of the other, similar composition from 1878 (Wildenstein, no. 467; fig. 2).
The current work may be an oblique view of figures taking the same path from the Metropolitan painting. Because of Monet's loose brushwork, however, it is difficult to determine whether the well-dressed woman with a parasol is walking while the other figures recline on benches, or indeed if the grouping signifies picnickers in another area of the park. The three paintings share a dramatic dispersion of light and shadow. They also anticipate the overall telescoping of space that would become evident in Monet's work during the 1880s and 1890s. It is clear why critic Théodore Duret called Monet the ''Impressionist par excellence. Claude Monet has succeeded in setting down the fleeting impressions which his predecessors had neglected or considered impossible to render with the brush. His canvases really do communicate impressions. One might say that his snow scenes make you cold and that his brightly lighted canvases give off warmth and sunshine." (quoted in L. Nochlin, Sources and Documents in the History of Art, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, 1874-1904, New Jersey, 1966, pp. 29-30.)
Such warm appreciation for Monet's work was rare, however, at this time. Impressionism was under attack and Monet was having trouble finding buyers for his work. On 15 January 1878 the artist moved from the environs of Paris, in Argenteuil, and installed himself at 26 Rue d'Edimbourg, in Paris's Quartier de l'Europe, a residence located between the Rue Moncey and the Parc Monceau. The move was precipitated by storm clouds of personal and financial distress that encircled the artist. His wife Camille was pregnant with the couple's third child, who would be born 17 March 1878. In Paris the artist sought to avoid his numerous creditors in Argenteuil, to find new subject matter and, most importantly, to attract new patrons in order to support his growing family.
Monet's search for subject matter that contrasted with the leisurely suburban environs of Argenteuil commenced in the spring of 1876, when he painted his first three views of Parc Monceau (Wildenstein, nos. 398, 399 and 400). Among the 1876 depictions of the park is a landscape, also in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Wildenstein, no. 398). After this first group, Monet worked on his famous 1877 series of the Gare St. Lazare in Paris before returning to less urban subject matter the following year, such as the island of the Grande Jatte and as seen here, Parc Monceau.
Daniel Wildenstein has suggested that Monet was drawn to this particular city park by an invitation from one of his most important early patrons, Ernest Hoschedé. The collector's daughter later recalled having met Monet for the first time there. It was Monet's habit to paint the people closest to him, especially his wife and children. It is therefore possible that the standing figure in the current lot is a depiction of Alice, Hoschedé's wife with whom Monet spent a great deal of time. After a long companionship, and following her husband's death in 1891, Monet would make Alice his second wife in 1892. The distant figures may also recall an earlier, unfinished Monet composition painted as an homage to Manet. Monet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1865-6 (Wildenstein, no. 62; fig. 3), now in The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, was intended for the Salon of 1866. It depicts a picnic attended by the artist's friends, including his future wife Camille and the painter Frédéric Bazille. The present painting is a wonderful example of Monet's enthusiasm for this kind of easy beauty and leisure, a constant subject matter throughout his oeuvre.
The Parc Monceau opened to the public in 1861 but was designed in the last years of the eighteenth century by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle, as a commission from Philippe d'Orléans to create a fashionable English country garden. The town houses adjoining this island of green in the middle of the city appear in several of Monet's views of the park. Monet has chosen not to depict these buildings in the present version. Instead he draws attention to the picturesque quality of the scene. Monet often favored compositional devices that allowed him to 'see' distant objects through a latticework or a frame. Here, we are made to squint at the distant figure group, which has been set off-center and is only glimpsed through the frame of bushes and trees. Monet deliberately avoids arranging his canvas according to a central, stable focus, and instead disperses his attention across the entire painting. William Seitz affirmed that, far from being spontaneous 'impressions,' Monet's canvases were the result of careful planning. ''It should go without saying that he did not choose a subject or a vantage point at random, and that while the choice was being made a pictorial solution was already forming in his mind" (in Claude Monet, New York, 1960, p. 26). Monet capitalized on the bright colors, and dappled shade in the Parc Monceau to carefully construct a synthesis of figure and nature, foreground and background, light, color and shadow that encourages viewers to look closely and make sense of the image for themselves, and become aware of how sensation, perception and visual unity are constructed.
Le parc Monceau was one of 29 paintings included by Monet in the Fourth Impressionist exhibition which opened on 10 April 1878 at 28, avenue de l'Opéra, Paris. Penniless, gripped by self-doubt, and distressed over the persistent illness of Camille, who would die in September 1879, Monet had been reluctant to participate in the exhibition, but was lured by Gustave Caillebotte's offer of a 2,500 franc payment. Around this time, Monet was selling his canvases for as little as 100 francs. The show also included works by Cassatt, Degas and Pissarro. The inclusion of the present painting in Monet's selections for the exhibition is significant because the chosen paintings formed a mini-retrospective of his work dating back to 1867. Monet deliberately took the opportunity in 1879 to show a relatively unappreciative public just what he was capable of, and how far he had come. Within this historical context, Monet thought highly enough of Le parc Monceau to request its loan for the Impressionist exhibition from Georges de Bellio, who had purchased it from the artist on 2 June of 1878. It is surprising to consider that such an airy and harmonious painting as Le parc Monceau was completed during a time that Monet was undergoing such serious financial setbacks and intense personal sufferings. In 1878, the majority of the public had not yet realized they were witnessing an artist at the height of his creative powers. In a few short years, however, the artist's struggles to secure his reputation and patronage would be a thing of the past.
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Le parc Monceau, 1878. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr. Purchase Fund, 1959 (59.142). Photo: Malcolm Varon. Photo Credit : Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY BARCODE 25238761
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Au parc Monceau, 1878. Private Collection. BARCODE 25238754
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1865-6. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. BARCODE 25238747