Please note this work has been requested for the forthcoming Monet & Architecture exhibition taking place at The National Gallery, London, from April - July 2018.
‘I have set up shop on the banks of the Seine at Vétheuil in a ravishing spot’
(Monet, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet or the Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 1999, p. 137)
‘We are accustomed to accept paintings of the kind Monet produced at Vétheuil as the acme of plein air naturalism’
(R. Thomson, ‘Looking to Paint: Monet 1878-1883’, in Monet: The Seine and The Sea, exh. cat., Edinburgh, 2003, p. 19)
Under a powder blue sky, the houses and tower of the church of Vétheuil stand nestled into the verdant banks of the river Seine in Claude Monet’s glorious, panoramic vista, Vétheuil. Painted in 1879, this radiant painting dates from one of the most crucial turning points of Monet’s career. Amidst personal turmoil, family tragedy and financial hardships, this was a period of extraordinary productivity that saw Monet forge a new direction in his art. Leaving behind the scenes of modern life that had defined his earlier output, the artist embraced the landscape in its purest form, capturing the ephemeral and fugitive effects of light and atmosphere on this picturesque corner of the Île de France to create what many consider to be some of the finest works of his career. First owned by Impressionist collector Edmond Decap, the present painting is among the first in this series of pivotal landscapes, of which many can be found in museum collections across the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
In the summer of 1878, the year before he painted Vétheuil, Monet left Argenteuil, the fashionable, suburban town on the outskirts of Paris, and, after a short stay back in the capital, moved further north to Vétheuil, a small, rural village situated on a wide oxbow bend of the river Seine. Having spent the previous seven years there, Monet was seeking a new setting and new subjects with which to reinvigorate his painting. Monet and his family arrived in the idyllic, remote village in late August of this year. The ancient town was clustered around the church, Notre Dame de Vétheuil, its large bell tower and Renaissance façade an imposing presence within this rural area. The town and its attractive environs provided ample inspiration for Monet; as he wrote happily to a friend on 1 September, ‘I have set up shop on the banks of the Seine at Vétheuil in a ravishing spot’ (Monet, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet or the Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 1999, p. 137).
The artist, his wife Camille, and their two young sons lived together with Ernest and Alice Hoschedé and their six children. A close friend and important patron of the artist, Ernest Hoschedé had lost his enormous inherited fortune and had been forced to declare bankruptcy, losing not only his art collection, but both his Paris apartment and opulent Château at Montgéron. Monet, who was likewise struggling financially, invited the Hoschedé family to live with them, pooling their resources to support their two families. The house they initially rented was too small to fit both of the families, and by the end of the year they had moved again into a larger property overlooking the Seine and the village of Lavacourt beyond. It was here that Monet would spend the next three and a half years, a period of great transition both personally and artistically in the artist’s life. Indeed, this small village would have a deep personal and artistic resonance for the rest of Monet’s life.
Monet immediately began to paint his new surroundings, exploring the deserted, flower-filled meadows, quiet, winding lanes, verdant orchards and the village and church itself. Much to his relief, he was able to sell many of these initial landscapes, which provided a much-needed influx of money to the family.
The spring of 1879 brought with it a renewed sense of optimism for the artist. Despite his ongoing personal angst, the landscape remained a source of pleasure and inspiration for Monet, reviving him and allowing him to forget his ever-burgeoning woes. As the landscape burst into bright, hopeful blossom, Monet painted with an almost frenzied passion, depicting the flowering meadows and orchards, as well as a number of scenes of the river and the environs of Vétheuil. It was at this time that he painted Vétheuil, a work which, like others from this spring and summer of 1879, shows little trace of the artist’s inner melancholy. Working en plein air, perhaps moored to or floating in the bank of the river in his studio-boat, Monet has painted the town from the south, near the road that led to Mantes, a larger town some fifty-seven kilometres from Vétheuil. One of two almost identical views – the other smaller version, possibly a study for the present work, Paysage Vétheuil, resides in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris – this painting presents a sun-soaked, expansive panorama of the water, sky and verdant countryside. With cows quietly grazing under the trees on the river bank, the clouds gently scudding across the sky, and the ancient town bathed in glowing light, this painting presents an idyllic, timeless view of Monet’s newfound home. The richly coloured, blossoming vegetation have led critics to suggest this work was painted at the end of the summer, as the leaves are just starting to turn.
The signs of human presence in Vétheuil are reduced to a minimum. There is perhaps some indication of boats and activity on the far side of the river, though these are hardly visible. The soft grey and warm cream tones with which Monet has used to depict the houses and church lend the impression that the village has become fused into the fabric of the landscape itself. Man and nature appear at one within the landscape; an effect heightened by the reflections in the river, which serve to unite these dual aspects of the painting. This gradual reduction of man’s presence is a characteristic that defines Monet’s work of this time. Following his move to Vétheuil, Monet increasingly abandoned the contemporary themes and quintessential subjects of modern life that had dominated his earlier oeuvre, and for which he had become best known. Gone are the scenes of suburban life in Argenteuil and the visions of the modernising metropolis that was Paris at this time. The signs and symbols of modernity – houses, factories, plumes of smoke, bridges and figures – are eliminated, replaced instead with unfettered, naturalistic visions of nature; as Paul Hayes Tucker has written, ‘Monet appears alone in a place where earth and sky, land and water, the artist and the environment are in perfect accord… There is a new kind of order [in his depictions of Vétheuil]; it is nature’s, not man’s’ (P. Hayes Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven & London, 1995, p. 101). The quiet and unchanged village of Vétheuil provided Monet the opportunity to paint the rural landscape of France unblemished by the signs of industrialisation and modernity that dominated the suburbs of Paris. As a result, Monet’s landscapes from this time, of which Vétheuil is a quintessential example, are imbued with a timelessness, as the landscape appears in all its majestic grandeur, a pure vision of nature itself. Just a few months before he painted the present work, a journalist had come to Vétheuil to interview the artist. When asked where his studio was, Monet emphatically answered, ‘My studio! I have never had a studio, and can’t understand how one can shut oneself up in a room. To draw, yes; to paint, no… There is my studio!’, he exclaimed, gesturing to the landscape, the river and the town that surrounded him (Monet, quoted in D. Wildenstein, op. cit., p. 162).
Plunging himself into the pure sensation of being within nature, he further developed his distinctive mode of rendering the landscape, using lighter brushwork to capture a more direct response to nature, as he captured the evanescent appearance of the world around him: the depiction of fleeting light effects, varying weather conditions, the ephemeral reflections shimmering in water, and the ever-changing colours and tones of the natural world. In the present work, he has used a soft, harmonious palette of blues, greens, pale pinks and greys, employed variously for different parts of this rural scene. Monet has captured the reflections on the water with an array of loose, rapid, increasingly gestural brushstrokes, creating an almost abstract surface of colour. Likewise, the riverbank in the immediate foreground of the scene is a riot of small staccato daubs of colour; deep verdant emerald tones mixing with spots of blue, white and brighter green to create a mosaic-like effect. In this way, it is clear that Monet’s focus has moved from the depiction of reality, towards the act of painting itself.
While the present work depicts a tranquil summer’s day, other works of 1879, as well as those of the following year, depict similar views with subtly different atmospheric states: still and bathed in early morning sunlight, cloaked in fog, or suffused in the soft, summer light of dawn. This complete absorption in nature led Monet towards the serial technique that would come to define his later working practice. Indeed, just over two decades later, in 1901, when the artist had settled in Giverny and was immersed in two of the most challenging and innovative serial undertakings of his career, the waterlilies and the views of the Thames, Monet made a visit to Vétheuil, where he returned to many of the motifs he had previously painted. This return, at a time when he was painting some of the most experimental and radical work of his career, demonstrates the importance that this small village and the work he painted there maintained in the artist’s career; perhaps by returning Monet was attempting to re-engage with the site of his earliest experiments in this distinctive mode of rendering the landscape.
In 1880, the year after Monet painted Vétheuil, the critic and friend of the artist, Duret noted the artist’s increasing embrace of the landscape in its purest, natural form. He prophetically observed: ‘After Corot, Claude Monet is the artist who has made the most inventive and original contribution to landscape painting. Were we to classify painters according to their degree of novelty and the unexpected contained in their works, Monet’s name would indubitably be included among the masters… We maintain…that in the future Claude Monet will be ranked alongside Rousseau, Corot and Courbet among landscape painters…’ (Duret, quoted in M. Clarke, ‘Monet and Tradition, or How the Past became the Future’, in Monet: The Seine and The Sea, exh. cat., Edinburgh, 2003, p. 45). And, while Monet’s art holds a prominent position within the haloed lineage of great 19th Century French landscape painting, a work such as Vétheuil also demonstrates the distinctive style and the radical working practices that would position the artist as one of the most important figures in the development of Twentieth Century Modernism.