In the late 1880s, Monet experimented at Belle-Ile, Antibes, and Juan-les-Pins with a novel serial approach, exploring a sharply limited set of compositional options under a range of different atmospheric effects. The series became Monet's principal working mode and aesthetic hallmark with the twenty-five paintings of grainstacks (meules) in the countryside near Giverny that he painted between August 1890 and February 1891, systematically extracting variation after variation from the same motif. No other painter up until then had ever conceived of painting such a large number of pictures that concentrated on the same subject and that were differentiated only by formal factors (color, touch, and composition) and by different lighting and weather conditions. John House has called the Meules series "the most crucial turning point of Monet's whole career," explaining, "In their subjects and their treatment, and in the way in which they were exhibited, the Grainstacks marked out a path that Monet was to follow for the rest of his life" (Monet in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 6). The present landscape is one of three views of grainstacks that Monet painted in 1894, three years after the original series was exhibited to great acclaim at Durand-Ruel's gallery. Subtle and important variations on the grainstack theme, this trio of canvases was painted while Monet was completing work on the third of his major series, the views of Rouen Cathedral. In May 1895, the present example was included in a seminal exhibition at Durand-Ruel that functioned as a mini-retrospective of Monet's achievements to date in series painting, the method which--to quote Paul Tucker--"would earn Monet his long-sought place in the hierarchy of contemporary art" (Monet in the '90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, p. 34).
Monet first explored the theme of the grainstack in five canvases that he painted in the fall and winter of 1888 (Wildenstein, nos. 1213-1217; fig. 1). His work was interrupted, however, early in 1889 first by a three-month painting campaign in the Creuse Valley, then by his major retrospective with Rodin at the Galerie Georges Petit and by a time-consuming project that he had initiated to donate Manet's Olympia to the French State. It was not until August or September of 1890, when local farmers again began cutting their wheat fields, that he was able to begin his Meules series in earnest. The twenty-five canvases that he painted over the course of the next six months depict the field lying immediately adjacent to his house at Giverny, looking west toward the hills on the far bank of the Seine (Wildenstein, nos. 1266-1290). There, following the harvest, farmers constructed stacks from hundreds of sheaves of bound stocks of wheat, rising to fifteen or twenty feet and capped with thatched conical roofs. These served as storage facilities, protecting the crop from moisture and rodents until spring, when the grain could be more easily separated from the stalk and the chaff. In a letter to Gustave Geffroy dated October 1890, Monet explained his aims in the Meules series: "I'm working away at a series of different effects (of stacks), but at this time of year, the sun sets so quickly that I can't keep up with it... The further I go, the better I see that it takes a great deal of work to succeed in rendering what I want to render: instantaneity, above all the enveloppe, the same light diffused over everything" (quoted in J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 198).
When Monet returned to the motif in 1894 in the present painting and two related views, he chose to focus not on the finished grainstacks with their distinctive conical roofs, but rather on a cluster of a dozen meulettes, wheat sheaves bundled roughly together to provide temporary protection against inclement weather while the stacks themselves were constructed (Wildenstein, nos. 1384-1385; figs. 2-3). As he had in the earlier paintings, he opted for an audaciously spare composition, with fields, hills, and sky reduced to parallel bands extending across the entire canvas. The strict, monumental geometry of the 1890-1891 Grainstacks, however, is supplanted here by a more rhythmic, organic quality. The line of hills in the background has become increasingly curvilinear, echoing the tufted tops of the wheat sheaves. As for the sprightly meulettes, they seem to dance and turn across the field, rather than sitting immutable on the land, staid and solid, like the conical meules. Indeed, Monet himself titled the present canvas Les demoiselles de Giverny (The Young Ladies of Giverny), explicitly linking the form of the small haystack to that of a figure in the landscape; in the 1891 exhibition of the Meules, not coincidentally, he had hung two views of a woman with a parasol above a row of grainstack paintings, emphasizing the human qualities of the stacks and the feminine in nature (Wildenstein, nos. 1076 and 1077; fig. 4). The other two paintings in the 1894 sequence depict the meulettes under a high, midday sun, with strong shadows; the present example, in contrast, is imbued with the pale, glowing light of early morning, the surface worked up from dense, superimposed layers of impasto in soft, pastel hues.
Although Monet's principal concern in these paintings may have been the changing effects of light on the grainstacks, the motif itself was by no means inconsequential. The grainstacks at Giverny represented the local farmers' livelihood, the fruits of their labors and their hopes for the future. They also offered tangible evidence of the land's fertility, standing as reassuring testimony to the continuity of agrarian traditions and the health of rural France. These thematic underpinnings would have had great resonance at the time that Monet painted the grainstacks. The long-standing notion that France's greatest strength lay in her rich land and benevolent climate had gained renewed momentum in the later nineteenth century, as cities and industry grew exponentially. Images of the harvest and stacks of grain were commonplace in landscape imagery of the period, and Millet's Autumn, Grainstacks (1868-1875; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) was exhibited in Paris in both 1887 and 1889. In the latter year, moreover, there was a national outcry when one of France's most celebrated icons of rural life, Millet's Angelus (1855-1859; Musée d'Orsay, Paris), was sold to an American collector; the painting's return to France the following year was greeted with relief and fanfare. In selecting the grainstacks as a motif, Monet was thus upholding the essential values of the French countryside, at the same time that he reaffirmed the vigor and relevance of Impressionism by demonstrating his ability to make new art out of old subject matter. Unlike many late nineteenth-century depictions of the fields of France, labor is totally absent from Monet's paintings of grainstacks. Instead, Tucker has written, "Monet's pictures breathe the air of contentment. For this is the countryside that fulfills all promises, the rural France that it wholesome and fecund, reassuring and continuous" (op. cit., 1989, p. 37).
Monet's return to the grainstacks in 1894 was not the only time that year that he extended a theme that he had already used for a major serial undertaking. In the spring, he had painted a suite of four canvases that depict a pair of poplar trees at the edge of a verdant meadow, harking back to his Peupliers series of 1891 (1891: Wildenstein, nos. 1291-1313; 1894: nos. 1366-1369). Having struggled to bring his Rouen Cathedral paintings to completion in the studio during the winter of 1893-1894, he was clearly contemplating the aesthetic issues surrounding seriality. That he ultimately found the method as strong and flexible as ever is indicated by the selection of paintings that he chose to show at Durand-Ruel in May 1895. In addition to twenty Cathedrales, six paintings of the church at Vernon, and seven views of Mont Kolsaas in Norway, the exhibition included isolated examples from each of his older series (the Creuse Valley, the Meules, the Peupliers) and from the 1894 meulettes and spring meadow sequences as well. The present painting was selected for inclusion in this important show and was sold the same year to the Parisian collector Isaac Montaignac, recalling Pissarro's lament to his son Lucien: "For the moment, people want nothing but Monets. Apparently he can't paint enough pictures to meet the demand. Worst of all, they all want Grainstacks" (quoted in ibid., p. 106).
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Les meules, fin du jour, automne, 1890-1891. Art Institute of Chicago.
(fig. 2) Small grainstacks (meulettes) on a hill overlooking Giverny.
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Les demoiselles de Giverny, effet de soleil, 1894. Bezalel National Art Museum, Jerusalem.
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Femme au parasol, 1886. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.