Monet painted this exquisitely subtle and delicate view of Vétheuil under heavy snow in 1879, the first full year that he lived in this rural hamlet about sixty kilometers northwest of Paris. He set up his easel on the road leading to the neighboring village of La Roche-Guyon, looking back toward Vétheuil. The house that he and his family were renting is visible as the third on the left, just beneath the twin turrets of the villa Les Tourelles, which belonged to his landlady Eve Elliott. This canvas is the first in a sequence of three that Monet painted from approximately the same vantage point, exploring the changes in the winter landscape over a period of days (Wildenstein, nos. 509-510; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Göteborg Konstmuseum, Sweden). In the latter two paintings, the snow has begun to melt, revealing patches of muddy ground; here, by contrast, the snow still blankets the village, and the white sky suggests an atmosphere thick with the promise of another storm.
Monet described the ephemeral effects of the recent snowfall using a muted symphony of whites flecked with strokes of silver, blue, and violet; a beaten track in the snow, rendered in touches of reddish-ochre, provides the only warm tonal contrast in this wintry scene. The overall impression is of a frozen world, tranquil, hushed, and still. The road enters the composition at the bottom right and curves into depth, drawing the viewer into the frosty landscape. The trees and shrubbery in the immediate foreground act as a repoussoir for the spatial illusion of the painting, accentuating the rapid recession of the road and the contrast between near and far. In the middle ground, the houses of the village spread out to the right of the path, providing a horizontal counterpoint to this swift movement into depth. Still further in the distance rises the snow-covered mass of the Chênay hill, as if to impede all travel beyond the end of the village street.
At the very spot that the curving road enters Vétheuil and disappears from view, a single figure–clad in black, boldly silhouetted against the ethereal landscape–trudges through the snow, the only sign of motion in the scene. He appears to be walking away from the village into the expansive and empty foreground, functioning perhaps as a proxy for the artist himself, on the way to his motif. The painting thus bears witness to a central tenet of Impressionism, as well as one of its most persuasive myths: the plein-air master before nature, rapidly transcribing his immediate sensations. “It was cold enough to split rocks,” wrote one journalist after a winter encounter with Monet. “We perceived a foot warmer, then an easel, then a gentleman bundled up, in three overcoats, gloves on his hands, his face half frozen; it was Monet studying an effect of snow” (quoted in G. Tinterow, Origins of Impressionism, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994, pp. 249-250).
The three years that Monet spent at Vétheuil–from August 1878 until December 1881–represent a decisive moment of artistic reassessment for the Impressionist painter, then entering middle age. The village at that time numbered only six hundred inhabitants, less than one-tenth the population of bustling suburban Argenteuil, where he had lived and worked previously. With no rail station and minimal industry, moreover, Vétheuil showed little evidence of modernity, which had increasingly disrupted the country calm and natural beauty of Argenteuil. Shortly after arriving at Vétheuil, Monet described his new home as “a ravishing spot from which I should be able to extract some things that aren’t bad” (quoted in Monet: The Seine and the Sea, 1878-1883, exh. cat., National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 17). Although personal difficulties plagued him during his first two years at Vétheuil–his wife Camille became terminally ill and died in September 1879, and his finances were in dire straits–this optimistic account of his artistic prospects proved spot-on.
At Vétheuil, Monet entirely abandoned the scenes of modern life and leisure that had dominated his work at Argenteuil and began to focus instead on capturing fugitive aspects of nature, employing a nascent serial technique that laid the groundwork for his most important later production. “The acknowledged painter of contemporary life who settled in Vétheuil in 1878 departed from that town in 1881, as from a chrysalis, renewed and redirected,” Carole McNamara has written (op. cit., exh. cat., University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1998, p. 86).
Although Monet dated the present canvas "1879", it remains uncertain whether he painted it early or late in that year. Wildenstein assigned this painting and the two related views to the beginning of 1879, during the first winter that Monet spent at Vétheuil, grouping them with a trio that depicts the village church under snow (nos. 505-507; Frick Collection, New York, and two in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Eliza Rathbone has noted, however, that weather conditions were much more severe late in the year, submitting much of Europe to the equivalent of a Siberian climate, and has proposed that Monet painted the three Route de Vétheuil canvases after a blizzard in early December 1879, before beginning a series of the hard-frozen Seine (exh. cat., op. cit., 1998, p. 106).
The inclement weather of 1879 began in autumn, when long periods of rain and gloom kept Monet indoors painting still-lifes. Temperatures plunged well below freezing in mid-November 1879 and remained there with almost no relief until a sudden thaw in early January. Snow began in earnest on November 29th and continued on and off throughout December, accumulating so deep that roads were rendered impassable, trains were unable to transport goods, and fuel and food supplies began to run short. “Snow fell during the first ten days of the month,” a contemporary almanac reported, “but particularly from the third to the fifth; at this time nearly everywhere there were frightful snowstorms and communications remained suspended almost everywhere for two to three days” (ibid., pp. 227-228).
Although Monet had painted snow scenes at Argenteuil and before that on the Normandy coast, the theme took on new significance for him at Vétheuil. The frigid weather kept most villagers home, allowing him to explore the rural landscape without human incursion. At the same time, he seems to have found a personal resonance in the stillness and silence of winter, which offered him respite from his mundane concerns while also serving as a haunting, elegiac pictorial metaphor for Camille’s suffering. In January 1880, when the ice on the Seine suddenly broke up into great chunks and the river flooded its banks, Monet painted nearly twenty views of the calamitous event. “The canvases appear to be filled with cries of pain and wonderment, sighs of resignation and odes of hope,” Paul Tucker has written. “They suggest notions of the past cracking and splintering…sensations which the site, of course, could have inspired but which surely were also the result of this important passage in Monet’s life” (Claude Monet: Life and Art, New York, 1995, pp. 103-105).
In addition to being a time of profound personal change and artistic renewal for Monet, the years that he spent at Vétheuil saw a thorough-going re-evaluation of his professional tactics. His income in 1879 was just half of what it had been earlier in the decade, yet his commitments were far greater–two sons of his own to support, plus Alice Hoschedé and her brood of six children, who had moved in with him and Camille at Vétheuil while her husband tended to his bankrupt textile business in Paris. So desperate, indeed, was his financial situation that he borrowed fifty francs from the local postmistress and struggled through the deep snow to reach Paris on 28 December 1879, just three days after his first Christmas without Camille, in an attempt to sell some of his winter landscapes. The trip was a modest success, with the dealer Georges Petit and the critic Théodore Duret each purchasing a painting for a combined sum of 450 francs.
During the ensuing months, Monet explored a wide variety of new marketing strategies. Although he remained fully committed to Impressionist methods and aims–“I am always and I want always to be an Impressionist,” he declared–he opted out of the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition in 1880, frustrated with group politics, sparse sales, and hostile press at past shows. Instead, he braved the contempt of his avant-garde colleagues and made his first attempt in a decade to enter the annual state-sponsored Salon. The jury rejected the more experimental of his two submissions (“much more to my own taste,” he claimed) and accepted the other (“more bourgeois”). With the help of various well-placed friends, he then persuaded the publisher Georges Charpentier to give him a solo exhibition that featured the rejected canvas–a moody sunset view of ice floes on the Seine (Wildenstein, no. 576; Petit Palais, Paris)–at the fashionable gallery of his journal La Vie Moderne.
Monet’s efforts to expand his clientele paid off handsomely, and his finances had rebounded by the time that he and Alice left Vétheuil for Poissy in the fall of 1881. The present landscape may have found a buyer as early as April 1880–the art dealer Jules Luquet, according to Wildenstein. By 1882, the canvas had almost certainly entered the collection of the Impressionists’ principal champion Paul Durand-Ruel, who had recently negotiated backing from the Union Générale bank and found himself with funds to spend again after a lean five years. In the same year, the painting was most likely featured in the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition, the second-to-last in the sequence of eight epoch-making shows that introduced the French public to the revolutionary formal vocabulary of the New Painting.
In 1913, La route de Vétheuil, effet de neige was one of only five paintings by Monet to appear in an even more momentous exhibition–the now-legendary Armory Show, named for the building in New York where it was held. Mounted under the auspices of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, the exhibition represented the sensational introduction of European modernism to American audiences, who until then had been largely unfamiliar with the audacious new directions evolving across the Atlantic in the studios of Matisse, Duchamp, Brancusi, and others. By that time, Monet and his cohorts had come to be venerated as founding fathers of the modern movement, and Room O at the Armory Show was devoted to their work, which the show’s organizers hoped would encourage support rather than derision for the current vanguard.
It may well have been at the Armory Show that La route de Vétheuil caught the eye of the New Orleans sugar magnate Hunt Henderson, whose sister Ellen purchased it for the family’s burgeoning and increasingly adventurous collection that same year. The painting has remained in the Henderson family ever since 1913, an enduring testament to the progressive and discerning taste of this storied American collector.