Although it is Monet's paintings of his own flower gardens and lily pond that are most readily associated today with the town of Giverny, the artist also took seemingly limitless inspiration from the countryside surrounding this picturesque farming community, where he lived from 1883 until his death more than four decades later. Between 1884 and 1886 alone, Monet painted no fewer than eighty canvases that explore the terrain around his new home, and the landscape near Giverny provided the motifs for the majority of his pioneering serial endeavors of the 1890s, including Les Meules, Les Peupliers, and Les matins sur la Seine. Within days of arriving at Giverny, Monet wrote to Durand-Ruel, "Once settled, I hope to produce masterpieces, because I like the countryside very much" (quoted in Monet's Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1978, pp. 15-16), and nearly a decade later, he remained, as he told the dealer, "certain of never finding a better situation or more beautiful countryside" (quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 175). "This was the landscape he came to know most intimately, in every season and under every weather condition," James Wood has written, "and its accessibility made possible the extended serial treatment that is the underlying structure for the work of the entire Giverny period" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1978, p. 11).
When Monet, his future wife Alice Hoschedé, and their combined brood of eight children moved to Giverny in April 1883, it was a tiny village of just three hundred inhabitants, situated at the confluence of the Seine and the Epte about forty miles northwest of Paris (figs. 1-2). Upon their arrival, the family rented a large, pink stucco house on two acres of land, sandwiched between the main village road (now known as the rue Claude Monet) and the regional thoroughfare connecting Vernon and Gasny. The house boasted a kitchen garden and orchard in front and a barn to the west that Monet converted into a studio; it was only after he bought the property in 1890 that he initiated its ambitious and expensive transformation into the floral and aquatic wonderland that was so admired in his later years.
During the first few months that he spent at Giverny, Monet focused his attention on the familiar motif of the Seine, which had been the subject of so many of his paintings during the previous ten years. "It always takes a while to get to know a new landscape," he explained, with some trepidation, to Durand-Ruel (quoted in ibid., p. 19). Yet after returning to Giverny in April 1884 after a three-month trip to the Italian Riviera, Monet embraced the landscape near his new home whole-heartedly. Over the course of the next two years, he produced a remarkably diverse corpus of landscapes, painting on the hill overlooking his house, in the village, on the roads leading to nearby towns, in the fields, and along the riverbanks. Paul Tucker has written, "There are pictures of the Seine and its tributary, the Epte, in virtually every season; there are charming scenes of winding country roads and houses nestled into the rolling hills. Although most of these are set in and around Giverny, many were painted in neighboring towns--Bennecourt, Port-Villez, Limetz, and Vernon--suggesting a new-found freedom to expand his repertoire as well as his base of operations" (op. cit., p. 120). The journalist Georges Jeanniot, who accompanied Monet on an excursion into the countryside near Giverny in 1888, recalled:
"He would stop before the most dissimilar scenes, admiring each and making me aware of how splendid and unexpected nature is. Once in front of his easel, he attacks the painting directly, handling his long brushes with an astounding agility and an unerring sense of design. He paints with a full brush and uses four or five pure colors; he juxtaposes or superimposes the unmixed paints on the canvas. He is always working on two or three canvases at once: he brings them all along and puts them on the easel as the light changes. This is his method" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1978, p. 21).
The present canvas depicts the road that climbs the hill on the left bank of the Seine near Port-Villez, roughly a mile south of Giverny. Like Pissarro and Sisley, Monet had experimented intermittently during the 1870s with the device of a road or path leading into a composition--the rue de Versailles at Louveciennes, for example, or the promenade alongside the Seine at Argenteuil. These earlier paintings, however, are scenes of suburban life and leisure, a theme that Monet abandoned entirely following his move from Argenteuil to Vétheuil in 1878. In the present canvas, by contrast, the road itself is the only sign of human habitation, the remainder of the scene given over to untrammeled nature (compare fig. 3, in which the houses of Giverny are faintly visible in the distance). Although Monet has chosen to position his easel at the top of the slope, showing the road descending toward the river and the houses of Port-Villez, these lie out of sight behind the high wall of trees and shrubs on the left side of the canvas. The path, moreover, is entirely deserted, leaving the viewer alone to enjoy the descent toward the town.
Monet's principal interest in Chemin was to capture the play of sunlight over the gently rustling foliage, rendered in small, varied touches of green, yellow, blue, and brown. The light enters the scene from the right (west), indicating that it was painted in the later afternoon. The road and sky are both depicted with longer, thinner strokes of pale blue, pink, and gold, against which the deep hues of the foliage stand out in sharp relief. A row of hazy blue hills is visible in the distance just below the horizon line, softening the transition between near and far, while the high boulder on the right closes the scene with authority. Although the painting bears the date 1886, a very similar scene (Wildenstein, no. 1001) is dated 1885, and the present version was almost certainly painted in that year as well, during high spring or summer.
Chemin thus dates to a critical moment in the history of Impressionism, the year before the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition. By this time, the Impressionist group had become increasingly fractured, with many of its pioneering members abandoning the cause. Monet's close friend and colleague Renoir, for example, had come to feel that he "had reached the end of Impressionism" and was working in a strongly classicizing vein (quoted in Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 241). Pissarro had recently met Seurat and quite vocally embraced Neo-Impressionism as "a new phase in the logical march of Impressionism" (quoted in J. Pissarro, Pissarro, New York, 1993, p. 212). Sisley continued to work in an Impressionist manner but was largely isolated near Moret, exhibiting only rarely. That left Monet as the principal standard-bearer for Impressionism, a role that he embraced with gusto. "I am still an Impressionist and will always remain one," he declared (quoted in Monet in the 90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1990, p. 20).
The exceptional variety of landscapes that Monet painted (one might say conquered) during the latter half of the 1880s--from the rolling hills and fertile fields near Giverny to the rocky, wind-swept coast of Belle-Ile and the sun-drenched shores of Antibes--would have left no doubt as to the continued vitality of Impressionism as a style. Tucker has concluded, "Monet was out to prove his worth as the foremost exponent of modernism and...to prove Impressionism's superior capacity to exploit color, describe particular climatic conditions, use paint in novel ways, and reveal fundamental truths about art and the world" (ibid., pp. 23 and 25).
(fig. 1) The village of Giverny, circa 1930.
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Champ de coquelicots à Giverny, 1885. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Chemin creux à Giverny, 1885. Sold, Christie's, London, 3 February 2003, lot 69.