Paysage de Printemps à Giverny is one of a suite of four pictures that Monet painted between March and May of 1894, depicting two poplar trees at the edge of a wood observed across a verdant meadow. After spending the winter of 1893-1894 in his studio putting the finishing touches on his Rouen Cathedral series, Monet began working again en plein air as soon as the weather permitted. Painted in the lush countryside near Giverny, probably bordering on a branch of the Epte, the poplar sequence is a celebration of the radiant light and bold colors of spring, reminiscent of a beautiful group of prairie scenes from 1887-1888 (fig. 1).
Paul Tucker has described the inception of the 1894 poplar pictures: "The most challenging group of paintings that Monet began after returning [from Rouen] to Giverny was four views of meadows dappled with the brilliant pastel light of spring. Their decorative palettes and trees recall the Poplar paintings of 1891. However, their encrusted surfaces and intricate color patterns attest to Monet's experience with his Cathedrals. So dazzling and sensuous are these pictures that they appear to be due to the amount of time that he had spent in Rouen, a notion that his letters support. When he first began his Cathedrals, for example, he told Alice that 'it is decidedly not my business to be in cities,' and that he 'disliked being closed in and not being able to walk around as much as I want.' He also spoke of how he missed Giverny and how he wanted to paint it in the spring. He made these same statements during his second campaign in Rouen. 'This Cathedral is admirable,' he admitted to Alice in March of 1893, 'but it is terribly dry and hard to do; it will be a delight for me after this to paint en plein air.' 'Giverny must be so beautiful that I dare not even think about it.' After working all winter to bring these Cathedral pictures to a close, he clearly indulged himself in the beauties of the countryside that spring, the suite of meadow pictures being the almost hedonistic result" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Boston, 1990, p. 177).
The poplar tree had numbered among Monet's favorite motifs throughout much of his career. One of the very first paintings that he made, in fact, includes a stately row of poplars in the background (Wildenstein 1; Private collection). Poplars often appear in Monet's views of fields around Argenteuil from the 1870s and abound in similar scenes of the more rural town of Giverny from the following decade, often becoming the primary focus of attention. Yet by far the most striking and celebrated precursors to the present canvas, as Tucker notes, are the twenty-four paintings of poplars that Monet made in 1891 (figs. 2-3), the second of his important late series, which followed immediately upon the Grainstacks of 1888-1891. Executed about two kilometers upstream from Giverny near the village of Limetz, the Poplar series constituted Monet's sole project during the summer of 1891. The series was so important to him, both professionally and personally, that he paid to prevent the trees from being felled for lumber in early August so that he could continue his work. The twenty-four canvases were exhibited at Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie. in March of 1892 and met with resounding success. The novelist, critic, and collector Octave Mirbeau wrote in a letter to the artist that the paintings were "absolutely admirable" and went on to describe the "complete joy" he experienced in front of them, "an emotion that I cannot express, so profound that I wanted to hug you. Never did any artist ever render anything equal to it" (quoted in ibid., pp. 142-143).
The four paintings of poplars from the spring of 1894 are equally striking and display the distinctive serial approach that dominated Monet's work in the final decades of his career. The four canvases are almost exactly the same size and depict the identical motif, varying only in their range of lighting effects. The present version, for instance, was probably painted near midday, with the radiant sun illuminating the trees in a golden glow and casting strong shadows across the meadow in the foreground. The sky is a bold cerulean blue scattered with wispy clouds, and a light spring breeze seems to rustle the foliage and sway the trunks of the spry, slender poplars. The meadow is rendered in a brilliant mosaic of green, yellow, blue, and orange -- a complex and variegated skin of colored touches that masterfully conveys the flickering play of light across a grassy field. In a second version of the scene, by contrast, Giverny is captured in the pale light of early morning (fig. 4). The sky is nearly colorless and the trees and grass are enveloped in an ethereal, dewy sheen. Monet viewed these individual pictures as integral parts of an ensemble, setting them next to one another in his studio in order to perfect the tonal interactions among them. Three of the four canvases, including the present one, were exhibited side-by-side at Durand-Ruel's gallery in 1895, where they would have served as powerful testimony to Monet's skill at depicting, as the critic Georges Lecomte described, "the luminous limpidities of the atmosphere" (quoted in ibid., p. 143).
Although rooted in the visual world, however, these seemingly descriptive views are attempts to do more than just capture particular aspects of nature. They also exemplify the mounting impulse toward abstraction that characterizes Monet's late period. Tucker wrote that "These paintings clearly display the artifice of Monet's craft as much as his ability to reproduce reality. By allowing the abstract elements of painting to carry visual weight, Monet gives his viewers the opportunity to indulge themselves in the aesthetic delights that painting offers. He wants them, in sum, to enjoy this series for its decorative appeal" (ibid., p. 122). In the present canvas, this autonomy of pictorial means is particularly evident in the distinctive rendering of the meadow: an intricate and heavily impastoed tapestry of color, divided into diagonal bands by a series of dark, sinuous stripes that resolve themselves into shadows only gradually. The powerful abstractions of the picture indeed make it an important precursor to the art of the twentieth century. Both Kandinsky and Malevich wrote at length about Monet's series from the 1890s, which they viewed as the inception of autonomous painting, while the Abstract Expressionists repeatedly acknowledged their debt to the dense layers of pigment and bold "all-over" quality of Monet's late canvases.
With their strict linearity and intrinsic decorative elegance, poplar trees provided Monet with an ideal vehicle for aesthetic investigations of this sort. Yet the trees were also associated both literally and symbolically with French heritage and history, connotations that certainly contributed to their appeal as an artistic motif. A well-known feature of the French countryside, poplars were often placed along rural roads and at the entrances of estates. They were used as windshields for tilled fields and as a form of fencing to demarcate property lines, and were planted along the banks of rivers to diminish the possibility of flooding. Moreover, the poplar tree had been deemed the tree of liberty after the French Revolution, possibly because of the derivation of the name from the Latin populus, meaning both "people" and "popular." By 1793, sixty thousand poplars had been planted in France and hundreds of broadsides issued featuring the tree as the symbol of the new republic. Ceremonial plantings continued in France throughout the nineteenth century, especially on the centennial of the Revolution in 1889. Monet's selection of poplars as a motif for painting, in addition to reflecting aesthetic and decorative concerns, was thus a means of affirming the French roots of his work and claiming his place in the annals of his nation's art. As the critic for the newspaper L'Hermitage proclaimed in 1899, "[Monet] understood the poplar, which summarizes all the grace, all the spirit, all the youth of our land" (quoted in P.H. Tucker, exh. cat., op. cit., p. 151).
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Prairie de Limetz, 1888; (Christie's, London, 4 February 2002, lot 12.)
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Les peupliers, 1891; (Christie's, New York, 8 November 2000, lot 9.)
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Les trois arbres, Été, 1891. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Prairie à Giverny, 1894. Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey.