The present work is being offered for sale pursuant to a settlement agreement between the consignor and the heirs of René Gimpel. This resolves any dispute over ownership of the work and title will pass to the buyer.
The year was 1885, the season high summer, and the location was Giverny, a tiny rural hamlet–now indelibly linked with Monet’s name–where the artist and his family had moved two years earlier. Since his return from a three-month painting campaign on the Italian Riviera in April 1884, Monet had made the astonishingly rich and varied landscape around his new home almost his sole motif. “If I am happy to work in this beautiful area,” he had written longingly to his beloved Alice Hoschedé while he was painting in the distant south, “my heart is always in Giverny” (quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New York, 1995, p. 119).
On this exquisite day, back home in the fold, Monet set off for La Prairie, a vast expanse of pasture separated from his own property by the Ru, a meandering tributary of the Epte that was later to feed his celebrated water-lily pond. Accompanying him were Alice and the three youngest of their combined families of eight children: Germaine and Jean-Pierre Hoschedé and Michel Monet, ages twelve, eight, and seven respectively. The late afternoon sun angles across the landscape, and the first hints of pink color the wisps of cloud, as a gentle breeze rustles the stately poplars; raked into tall haystacks, the mown dried prairie grass proclaims the land’s fertile abundance. All these commonplace sights combine to transform this scene into a veritable manifesto of the natural charms and pictorial possibilities the Giverny countryside had bestowed upon Monet, a plein-air painter through and through, so completely here in his element, so happily close to home.
Monet had first discovered this alluring spot the previous summer at hay-making time, painting a trio of views from almost the same vantage point as Les meules à Giverny, looking north toward a row of poplars that traverses the newly cut meadow, with the hills overlooking Giverny visible in the distance (Wildenstein, nos. 900-902; Pushkin Museum, Moscow). All three canvases had sold by the end of the year, one to the famous baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure and the other two to the dealer Durand-Ruel. Monet returned in 1885–by which time the lower branches of the poplars, closely pruned the year before, had grown full and leafy again–and painted three more views of the same site, of which the present version is the only one remaining in private hands (Wildenstein, nos. 534-535; Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). “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,” explained the journalist Georges Jeanniot, who accompanied Monet on an excursion into the countryside near Giverny in 1888. “This is his method” (quoted in Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1978, p. 21).
In all these views, the haystacks are the most prominent feature in the landscape; they provide an important precursor for Monet’s iconic Meules of 1890-1891, the first of the innovative serial endeavors that would come to define the last three decades of his career. The earlier pictures depict haystacks proper, comprised of grass that has been cut, dried, and piled up loose to use as winter fodder for grazing livestock. The later series, in contrast, shows sheaves of bound wheat, packed closely together and capped with thatched roofs to protect the crop until spring, when the grain could be more easily separated from the chaff. In both groups of paintings, however, Monet’s principal concern was to capture the play of light and shadow across the curving, subtly modulated surface of the conical stacks. In the present Meules à Giverny, painted as sunset first began its approach, the front face of each haystack is still awash in golden light, rendered in vigorous touches of yellow and peach, while the far side has sunken into shades of deep purple and pink. The Ohara Museum composition, by contrast, shows the largest haystack almost entirely subsumed in shadow, with just a few dapples of sun to evoke the waning light and heat at the end of the day.
“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,” Monet explained to the critic Gustave Geffroy in 1890. “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).
With their exquisitely nuanced description of the fleeting effects of light, the paintings from La Prairie forcefully assert Impressionism’s continued strength and vitality, at a time when many of the movement’s pioneering members were abandoning the cause. Renoir had been working in a strongly classicizing vein since his Italian sojourn in 1881-1882, while Pissarro had met Signac earlier in 1885 and would soon become a convert to the credo of Neo-Impressionism. Monet, in contrast, resolutely declared, “I am still an Impressionist and will always remain one” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1989, p. 20). Throughout the latter part of the 1880s, whether reveling in the sheer beauty of his beloved Giverny or seeking out novel motifs at sites further afield, “Monet was out to prove his worth as the foremost exponent of modernism and to claim for Impressionism its proper place as the leading avant-garde style,” Paul Tucker has written. “What Monet seems to be asserting in all of these paintings...is 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).
Monet’s paintings from Giverny also put forth a very particular vision of France, rooted in the long-standing notion–which had only gained potency following the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to the Prussians in 1871–that the country’s greatest strength lay in her rich lands and beneficent climate. In Les meules à Giverny, the haystacks represent the local farmers’ livelihood, the fruits of their labors and their hopes for the future; they also offer tangible evidence of the land’s fertility, standing as reassuring testimony to the continuity of agrarian traditions and the health of rural France. “Monet’s paintings implied that the countryside was a place where one could find reassurances about the world,” Tucker has proposed, “where contemporary problems seemed to vanish, and a deeper union with nature appeared possible” (ibid., p. 111). The lithe poplar trees that define the middle ground of the painting–presaging the second of Monet’s late series–were a well-known feature of the French countryside as well, often placed along rural roads and at the entrances of estates. They were used as windshields for tilled fields and as a form of fencing to demarcate property lines, and they were planted along the banks of rivers to diminish the possibility of flooding. Here, they seem to enclose the meadow protectively, their strict linearity and intrinsic decorative elegance forming a compositional counterpoint to the staid and solid haystacks.
Unlike many late nineteenth-century depictions of the fields of France, labor is totally absent from Monet’s paintings of Giverny. Whereas the theme of hay-making appealed to Pissarro, for example, as a manifestation of communal effort, a key aspect of his utopian vision for the modern countryside, there are no rural workers in Monet’s agrarian scenes–only his own bourgeois family, enjoying the pasture as a setting for wholesome leisure–and no indication of the difficulties entailed in producing the haystacks. Yet Monet still imbues his Giverny with a profoundly social dimension. In the present painting, the haystacks seem to function as human stand-ins, echoing on a loftier scale the configuration of Alice, with her full skirt and jaunty red parasol, and the children–a larger form in the lead, trailed by two smaller forms. In contrast to the later Meules, which sit heavy and immutable on the land, these sprightlier stacks lean toward the left–toward the figures, toward the light–with a sense of yearning, which is reinforced by the directional strokes in the sky and the gentle westward breeze that sways the poplar trees.
“Like the family members,” Tucker has written, “the stacks are sources of pride and concern and stand as the tangible evidence of natural continuities. Formally, they assert themselves as individual entities, although at the same time they are one with the enveloping atmosphere, just like the figures. These pictures, therefore, are not only about light and color, instantaneity, and agrarian phenomena. They are also about nurturing and growth, commitment and continuity, concerns that Monet believes can be found in the countryside. They were concerns that had particular relevance to France in the later 1880s and contributed substantially to Monet’s success during these years” (ibid., p. 39).
Although Monet’s paintings of Giverny are steeped in pride for La belle France, they did not all remain in the country for long. In April 1886, eager to broaden his customer base, Durand-Ruel mounted an exhibition of French Impressionist painting in New York, which marked the first large-scale introduction of the art of Monet and his colleagues to American audiences. The show was a great success–“one of the most important artistic events that has ever taken place in this country,” the reviewer for The Cosmopolitan proclaimed–and by the time it closed, Durand-Ruel was thoroughly committed to the American market. The dealer purchased the present painting from Monet in September 1886 and brought it to New York soon after his new gallery opened there in 1888; the very next year, Frank Thomson, a prominent railroad executive and one of the earliest patrons of Impressionism in Philadelphia, added the canvas to his growing collection. “Do not think that Americans are savages,” Durand-Ruel wrote, pleased, to Fantin-Latour. “On the contrary, they are less ignorant, less closed-minded than our French collectors” (quoted in F. Weitzenhoffer, Impressionism Comes to America, New York, 1986, pp. 41-42).
By 1931, the present painting had passed into the collection of the prominent French dealer René Gimpel, whose Journal d'un collectionneur (The Diary of an Art Dealer) famously chronicles the rise of the modern art market between the two World Wars. A keen observer and a witty, sometimes acerbic writer, Gimpel documented his relationships with cultural luminaries from Picasso to Proust, with competing art dealers, and with American mega-collectors such as Henry Clay Frick, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller. He described visiting the aging Monet at Giverny, where he had the opportunity to admire Les grandes décorations in progress and to purchase paintings directly from the artist's studio. During the Second World War, Gimpel and his sons took active part in the Resistance. René was first interned by the Vichy authorities in 1942 for his underground activities, and released in 1943, but then re-arrested by the Germans in July 1944. Much of his collection was lost or sold under duress. In confinement, he taught English to his fellow prisoners in preparation, he said, for the impending liberation; he died, however, at Neuengamme concentration camp before that day could come. After the war, two of Gimpel's sons, Charles and Peter, founded the Gimpel Fils gallery in London, carrying on their father's celebrated legacy.
Claude Monet, Autoportrait de Claude Monet coiffé d’un béret, 1886. Private collection.
Photograph of Giverny, circa 1930. Photograph by A.E. Henson, Country Life Picture Library.
Claude Monet, Meules, effet du soir, 1884. Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
Claude Monet, La meule de foin, 1885. Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki.
Claude Monet, Pré à Giverny, 1885. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Camille Pissarro, Fenaison à Eragny, 1893. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Claude Monet, Meules, fin de l’été, effet du soir, 1890-1891. Art Institute of Chicago.