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 a well-dressed figure group in the foreground is 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). In that work, the painter has situated himself in apparently the same position as in the present work. The third painting (Wildenstein, no. 468; Private collection) takes a more distant viewpoint. According to Daniel Wildenstein (op. cit.), all three works were probably sold by Monet shortly after they had been painted to three different private collectors in June 1878.
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 seated figure apparently holding an infant in the current lot is a depiction of Camille and their recently born child, possibly accompanied by Alice, Hoschedé's wife. After a long companionship, and following her husband's death in 1891, Monet would make Alice his second wife in 1892. The figure group 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), now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, part of a larger work, depicting a picnic enjoyed by the artist's friends, intended for the Salon of 1866. 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. He also 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 search for the distant figure group, which has been set in midst of the middle-ground blaze of sunlight and is 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' (Claude Monet, New York, 1960, p. 26). Monet capitalized on the bright colours, and dappled shade in the Parc Monceau to carefully construct a synthesis of figure and nature, foreground and background, light, colour 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.