The present painting is one in an important series of fifteen canvases that Monet executed in 1901, showing the picturesque village of Vétheuil on the right bank of the Seine (Wildenstein nos. 1635-1649). The artist had lived and worked at Vétheuil from 1878 to 1881, a watershed moment in his career, and his later views of the town may be understood in part as a nostalgic return to a motif with deep personal and artistic resonance. At the same time, the 1901 canvases are a significant example of the distinctive serial approach that dominated Monet's work in the final decades of his career. A uniform set of views varying only in lighting effects and weather conditions, the Vétheuil pictures reveal the same fascination with the evanescent aspects of nature as such celebrated late series as the water garden at Giverny and the River Thames in London. Discussing the significance of this period in Monet's oeuvre, Paul Tucker has written: "Between 1900 and his death in 1926, Monet produced some of the most novel paintings of his career...that today are justifiably hailed as landmarks of late Impressionism. Filled with beauty, daring, and bravura, they stand as eloquent witness to an aging artist's irrepressible urge to express his feelings in front of nature. They also attest to his persistent desire to reinvent the look of landscape and to leave a legacy of significance" (in Monet in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 14).
At the start of the twentieth century, Vétheuil remained an idyllic, agrarian hamlet of just a few hundred inhabitants (figs. 1-2). About sixty kilometers northwest of Paris, the town was situated on a hill overlooking a gentle bend in the Seine. Its major landmark was the Romanesque church of Notre-Dame, which occupied a commanding position in the heart of the village. With no bridges or rail station and only minimal industry, Vétheuil showed little evidence of modernity in Monet's time. Shortly after settling there in 1878, the artist described the town in a letter to Eugène Maurer as "a ravishing spot from which I should be able to extract some things that aren't bad" (quoted in M. Clarke and R. Thomson, Monet: The Seine and the Sea, 1878-1883, exh. cat., National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1003, p. 17).
Monet's fifteen views of Vétheuil from 1901 were all painted from Lavacourt, a small village directly across the Seine. In July, frustrated by the stifling heat in his studio at Giverny and unable to work in his famous water garden due to construction, Monet began to have his chauffeur drive him and his wife Alice to Lavacourt in the afternoons, a distance of twelve kilometers easily traversed in the family's new Panhard-Levassor car. By the end of the month, the artist had rented a modest house at Lavacourt with a second-floor balcony and an excellent view across the river to Vétheuil. Pleased by this motif, he painted there nearly every day until October, when he wrote to Durand-Ruel, "I have undertaken a series of views of Vétheuil that I thought I would be able to finish quickly and which have taken me all summer" (quoted in ibid., p. 52). The paintings proved to be exceptionally popular with collectors. Monet sold ten of them (including the present example) in the first three months of 1902, earning a total of 80,000 francs--enough to cover the cost of his garden renovations and to pay for the Panhard-Levassor several times over.
The fifteen paintings were all executed from precisely the same viewpoint, on canvases either square (89 x 92 cm.) or nearly square (81 x 92 cm.). The village itself is pressed into the upper third of the canvas, with the larger lower section given over to the expanse of river and reflections. The church of Notre-Dame forms the focal point of the pyramidal composition, rising proudly and protectively over the town's quaint, jostling cluster of whitewashed houses. The gently rippling Seine fills the foreground, with the fragmented reflections of the town forming a patchwork of shimmering, semi-abstract shapes on the water's surface. In the present canvas, the scene is suffused in the warm, rosy light of a summer afternoon. In other pictures from the series, Monet rendered Vétheuil in the golden glow of sunset (fig. 3) or beneath an overcast, autumnal sky (fig. 4). Discussing this group of paintings, John House concludes, "For Monet, the distinctive quality of the site lay in what he called the enveloppe--its distinctive light and atmosphere" (in op. cit., exh. cat., Boston, 1998, p. 9).
Monet had painted several similar views of Vétheuil when he lived there in the late 1870s. Particularly close in composition are four great 1879 landscapes, all of which are now housed in major museum collections (W. 531-534; fig. 5). Although Monet's handling in the 1901 canvases is much freer and less detailed, the motif is nearly identical in the two series. Paul Tucker has written, "These paintings were unabashed retreats to pictures he had done of the same site during his stay in Vétheuil more than two decades earlier, and were suffused with sweet nostalgia for the time he had spent in that village some twenty years earlier" (op. cit., p. 39). Andrew Forge suggests a more specific reason for Monet's renewed exploration of Vétheuil in 1901. His stepdaughter Suzanne had just died, and both he and Alice were mourning deeply. "There must have been some connection between this sadness and his return to Vétheuil, the place where [his first wife] Camille had died and where he and Alice had started their lives together some twenty years before. In these canvases, personal memories and memories of work were interwoven" (in Monet, Chicago, 1995, p. 60).
Vétheuil may have had artistic as well as personal significance for Monet in 1901. The years that he spent there between 1878 and 1881 marked a key juncture in his work--"a decisive moment of personal and artistic reassessment...[and] the most momentous change in the career of the most revolutionary Impressionist" (C. Stuckey et al., Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point, exh. cat., University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1998, pp. 13 and 41). Following his move to Vétheuil, Monet entirely abandoned the contemporary themes that had dominated his earlier oeuvre and began to focus instead on the description of fugitive aspects of nature. This nascent serial technique, which laid the groundwork for Monet's most important later production, is especially evident in a group of paintings from January 1880 that depict ice floes on the Seine at Vétheuil (fig. 6). By 1901, Monet was hard at work on two of the most challenging and innovative serial undertakings of his career: the water garden and the Thames. His return to Vétheuil at this time may represent an effort to re-engage with the site of his earliest experiments in this distinctive mode of rendering the landscape.
More generally, the 1901 paintings of Vétheuil reflect Monet's mounting interest in the latter years of his career in reworking themes from his own previous painting. His views of the beaches and cliffs at Pourville from 1896-1897, for instance, constitute a renewed exploration of motifs that had occupied him during the early 1880s, while the Thames series of 1899-1901 was the fulfillment of a long-cherished plan to revisit sites that he had painted in 1871. As the artist told Thiébault-Sisson around the turn of the century, "Ever since I turned sixty, I have had the idea of undertaking, for each of the types of motif which had in turn shared my attention, a sort of synthesis in which I would sum up in one canvas, sometimes two, my past impressions and sensations. I would have to travel a great deal and for a long time, to revisit one by one the staging posts of my life as a painter and to verify my past feelings" (quoted in J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 31).
The present painting was acquired in 1938 by Aline Barnsdall, a prominent Los Angeles arts patron and oil heiress and the owner of the famous Hollyhock House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Ms. Barnsdall also purchased in the same year a second example from the series, Vétheuil, aprés-midi d'automne (W. 1642). The two canvases hung in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on extended loan from 1940 to 1948.
More than half of Monet's views of Vétheuil from 1901 are now housed in major museum collections, including the Pushkin Museum (W. 1635), the Art Institute of Chicago (W. 1643, 1645), the Musée d'Orsay (W. 1644), the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille (W. 1646), and the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo (W. 1648). The four 1879 canvases discussed above may be found in the Southampton City Art Gallery (W. 531), the Musée d'Orsay (W. 532), the National Gallery of Victoria (W. 533), and the Art Gallery of Ontario (W. 534).
(fig. 1) Adolphe Maugendre, Vétheuil, vue générale, prise de Lavacourt, 1853. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Barcode 26370488
(fig. 2) View of Vétheuil from Lavacourt. Barcode 23670495
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Vétheuil, soleil couchant, 1901. Art Institute of Chicago. Barcode 23670532
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Vétheuil, effet gris, 1901. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille. Barcode 23670501
(fig. 5) Claude Monet, Vétheuil en été, 1879. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Barcode 23670518
(fig. 6) Claude Monet, La débâcle à Vétheuil, 1880. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor. Barcode 23670525