In January 1893, a period of intense cold gripped nearly the whole of France, and heavy snowfall blanketed the countryside at Giverny, where Monet made his home. Since the earliest days of his career, Monet had been fascinated with the way that snow transforms a familiar landscape, softening forms, reflecting light, and unifying the motif in tone and texture. Now, with temperatures well below freezing and the air thick with morning fog or gently falling snow, he ventured out to the Clos Marin, the field just west of his house where he had painted his Grainstack series, and set up his easel facing a cluster of cottages and farm buildings that stood on land known locally as Le Pressoir (“the cider press”). From this vantage point, the landscape resolved before Monet’s eyes into an exquisitely spare composition—parallel bands of field and houses, trees and sky—that brought to the fore the hauntingly delicate effects of the season.
The single painting that Monet made of this motif—the present Effet de neige—is a triumph of atmosphere, rendered predominantly in white with touches of blue and violet. A faint mauve glow brushes the veiled contours of the treetops, heralding daybreak; the sky is only slightly less white than the snowy mantle that it has deposited upon the ground. The vertical elements of the houses, uncovered by snow, create deeper valued areas in the composition; these are echoed by the partially exposed knobs of terrain in the foreground, which mark out a path into the landscape as well as suggesting hidden depths of mystery beneath this frozen world. Nestled close together in the middle distance, enfolded by the undulating bank of trees, the houses imbue this hushed, meditative scene with a profoundly social dimension. “Monet not only created a harmonious blanched landscape of blues and greys,” Richard Thomson has written, “but also used the indistinct but imperative presence of buildings as protection against the winter cold, as a reassuring motif of the community enclosed and secure” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2018, p. 82).
This exquisitely subtle canvas, silent and still, inaugurated a winter campaign for Monet. Beginning mid-month, he left his wife Alice and their children snug at home and enlisted a driver to bring him each day by horse-drawn cart over the snowbound roads to the hamlets of Bennecourt and Villez, several kilometers upstream from Giverny. Over the course of two weeks, as the Seine froze over entirely and then partially thawed, he painted a dozen views of ice floes on the river’s surface, under slight variations of weather and light (Wildenstein, nos. 1333-1344). “I set myself up on the river,” he later recalled. “I struggled to secure my easel and my folding chair. From time to time someone brought me a hot-water bottle. It was not for my feet—I was not cold—but for my numb fingers that were threatening to drop the paintbrush. The landscape was wonderful!” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 40).
The period of unexpected cold that inspired these numerous studies could not have come at a more opportune time for Monet, a dedicated painter of winter. By January 1893, he had not worked en plein air for nearly a year, and he ached for a respite from his arduous labors indoors. From February until April 1892, he had devoted himself entirely to his series of Rouen Cathedral, setting up his easel inside a milliner’s shop that faced the motif. “It is decidedly not my business to be in cities,” he lamented to Alice, recounting a nightmare in which the Gothic edifice toppled down on him. “The Cathedral is admirable but it is terribly dry and hard to do. It will be a delight for me after this to paint en plein air. Giverny must be so beautiful that I dare not even think about it” (quoted in P.H. Tucker, Monet in the 90s, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, p. 177).
The late spring and summer of 1892 were given over to personal matters. Alice’s eldest daughter Suzanne announced her intention to marry the American expatriate Theodore Butler, a union that Monet rather histrionically opposed on account of Butler’s profession—a painter! He eventually came around, and two sets of nuptials rapidly followed: his own and Alice’s on 16 July, after more than a decade of partnership, and Suzanne and Butler’s just four days later. By the time that Monet resumed work in the fall, he had a backlog of paintings to finish in the studio that people had been demanding for some time, and his mood was grim. “As you may have suspected,” he apologized to Durand-Ruel, “we have had a fair number of disruptions in our life which normally is so regular and peaceful. All of this has affected work which is making me very melancholic. You know how I am when I stop painting” (quoted in ibid., p. 168).
As the temperature plummeted at the end of the year, however, Monet’s spirits soared. “I am full of enthusiasm,” he wrote to Durand-Ruel in mid-December, “and truly hope that this long rest will serve me well.” By late January, he could report unequivocally to the dealer, “I succeeded in finding myself again” (quoted in ibid., p. 168). Monet’s deep personal satisfaction at painting outdoors once more, alone before his motif, is clearly evident in the present Effet de neige à Giverny, as is his determination to challenge himself after so long a period of inactivity.
A rapid thaw in late January brought Monet’s brief but intensive bout of winter work to a sudden close. On 1 February, the artist left Giverny to attend an exhibition of Japanese prints in Paris, where he admired the snow scenes above all. “Hiroshige is a wonderful Impressionist,” declared Pissarro, who accompanied Monet to the exhibition. “Monet, Rodin, and I are in rapture over him. I am glad to have made my effects of snow and flood; the Japanese artists give me confirmation of our visual choice” (quoted in Origins of Impressionism, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994, p. 252).
By 16 February, Monet was back in Rouen, revitalized and ready for a second bout of grappling with the Cathedral. “It is easy to see how the wraith-like quality of these pale, frozen scenes informed his complex vision of the Gothic façade,” Tanya Paul has written (Monet and the Seine: Impressions of a River, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2014, p. 126). In May 1895, the artist exhibited twenty views of the Cathedral at the Galerie Durand-Ruel—not in isolation, as he had earlier series, but alongside a wide-ranging compendium of recent motifs. There were thirteen paintings of Mont Kolsaas in Norway, six of the church at Vernon, three Spring Meadows, and one canvas each from the Poplar, Grainstack, and Creuse Valley series. Rounding out this highly acclaimed mini-retrospective was a trio of canvases from Monet’s 1893 winter campaign: two views of the frozen Seine (Wildenstein, nos. 1333 and 1336) and the present Effet de neige.
During the ensuing years, these winter views proved exceptionally popular on the market, especially in the United States, where Impressionism had newly taken hold. The now-legendary collector H.O. Havemeyer purchased two paintings from the Ice Floe series; one went to William Fuller, director of the National Wallpaper Company, and another to the prominent railroad lawyer Charles Harrison Tweed. In 1899, Durand-Ruel sold Effet de neige to the Philadelphia-based shipping magnate Clement Griscom, the foremost American figure in transatlantic freight at the time. The canvas subsequently belonged to John Spaulding, a leading benefactor of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, during the early decades of the twentieth century; it entered the Stafford family collection in 1949 and has never since changed hands.