Monet painted this exquisitely delicate and nuanced landscape–its composition so spare and decoratively elegant as to border on the abstract–during the summer of 1888, which he spent at home in Giverny, reveling in the myriad pictorial possibilities there were to explore just a short walk away from his studio. The ostensible subject of the painting is a verdant, open meadow slightly south of the river Epte, within the boundaries of the commune of Limetz. What clearly captured Monet’s attention, however, and sparked his desire to begin the painting was not the topography of this particular spot, but the arresting effect of an overhanging tree branch, its intricate pattern of dark leaves silhouetted in striking counterpoint against the hazy, rosy hued morning sky. “He would stop before the most dissimilar scenes,” recalled the journalist Georges Jeanniot, who accompanied Monet on a painting excursion in the countryside this same summer, “admiring each and making me aware of how splendid and unexpected nature is” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1978, p. 21).
The central pictorial drama of the painting lies in the tension between conventional spatial recession, indicated most explicitly by the narrow foot path that flows into the scene, and a new emphasis on the flat surface of the picture plane, which anticipates Monet’s radically innovative water-lily paintings of two decades hence. The broad expanse of the meadow, which occupies more than half of the canvas, is rendered in a mosaic of thickly impastoed colored touches–richly variegated greens, golds, and browns–that assert their autonomous presence, above and beyond their descriptive function. At the left, the tones become lighter and the paint surface less sculpturally textured toward the middle ground, creating a subtle sense of depth. The sinuous tracery of the overhanging branch functions like the frame of a window, opening onto a bushy poplar at the very moment that the rising sun washes across it. At the right, by contrast, where the sun has not yet illuminated the distant foliage, foreground and background are compressed into a single stippled passage of deep blue-green. “[Such] paintings clearly display the artifice of Monet’s craft as much as his ability to reproduce reality,” Paul Tucker has remarked. “By allowing the abstract elements of painting to carry visual weight, Monet gives his viewers the opportunity to indulge themselves in the aesthetic delights that painting offers” (Monet in the ’90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, p. 122).
“The subject, the pure landscape, gave rise to Monet’s increasingly bold artistic adventures,” Christian von Holst has written. “In his rapid perception and execution, he celebrated the fascinating allure of brief moments, intensified the expressive power of color, and gave life to the paintings as works of art. These occasional fireworks of light and color emancipate themselves from their subject, their familiar natural environment, and they metamorphose into pure painting. The landscapes remain recognizable, of course, yet Monet’s increasingly liberal approach to individual objects in favor of the liberation of color culminates in an autonomy of painterly expression at which we gaze in awe–particularly when confronted with details that we can no longer identify as motifs–an expression that foreshadows much later developments in twentieth-century art” (Claude Monet: Fields in Spring, exh. cat., Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 2006, p. 34).
Monet had settled at Giverny, in the midst of the fertile countryside that inspired these pictorial experiments, in April 1883, five years before he painted the present Paysage de matin. Situated at the confluence of the Seine and the Epte about forty miles northwest of Paris, Giverny was at that time a tiny farming community of just three hundred inhabitants, and it would remain Monet’s home until the end of his life. Upon his arrival, the artist rented a sprawling, pink stucco house on two acres of land, with sufficient space to accommodate his future wife Alice Hoschedé and their combined brood of eight children. 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.
The artist was immediately smitten with the landscape around Giverny. “Once settled, I hope to produce masterpieces,” he wrote to Durand-Ruel within days of his arrival, “because I like the countryside very much” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1978, pp. 15-16). Nearly a decade later, he remained “certain of never finding a better situation or more beautiful countryside,” as he told the dealer (quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 175).
During the first five years that he spent at Giverny, Monet tirelessly explored the surrounding terrain, setting out with his canvases each day at dawn, walking over hills and through valleys, in marshes and meadows, among streams and poplars. “He would watch with a hunter’s concentration for the precise moment when light shimmered on grass or on silver willow leaves or on the surface of the water,” Andrew Forge has written. “Suddenly or by degrees his motif would be revealed to him” (Monet at Giverny, London, 1975). He painted the Seine and its burbling tributary the Epte, winding country roads and houses nestled into the rolling hills, and vast fields that stretch from one edge of the canvas to the other, offering tangible evidence of the land’s fertility and abundance. “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).
During the summer of 1888, Monet focused his attention almost exclusively on the tranquil, sun-dappled meadows south of the Epte, the so-called plain of Les Essarts. In late April 1888, he had returned from an enormously productive three-month stay at Antibes; he spent the next month secluded in his studio finishing the canvases from this campaign and delivered them in early June to Boussod & Valadon for exhibition. By then the familiar landscape around Giverny was at its greenest and most lush, and Monet found no shortage of seductive motifs, producing a dozen views of the sun-dappled Limetz meadows from different angles and at different times of day over the course of the next two months (Wildenstein, nos. 1194-1206, including the present Paysage de matin). It was not until the early fall, when the local farmers began to harvest their wheat, that Monet switched gears, painting the first five canvases in what would become his iconic Grainstack series (Wildenstein, nos. 1213-1217).
Although Monet most often set out to paint solo, on holidays his excursions into the countryside became festive family affairs. Three of the Limetz meadow paintings include seated or strolling figures–Monet’s children and step-children, who ranged in age at the time from ten to twenty-four, elegantly but comfortably dressed for a day in the countryside. A late-afternoon landscape that is closely related to Paysage de matin, painted from an identical vantage point and with the same overhanging branch in the foreground, shows Jean Monet and Suzanne Hoschedé seated in the shade of the tree (Wildenstein, no. 1206), suggesting that they may have been nearby when the artist began the present canvas as well. The faint path through the grass that leads into the scene records the trace of their presence, and Monet’s too. Unlike the Grainstack paintings to come, this is not a working agrarian landscape but a setting for leisure and contemplation. “Monet’s pictures breathe the air of contentment,” Tucker has written. “This is the countryside that fulfills all promises, the rural France that is wholesome and fecund, reassuring and continuous” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1989, p. 37).
Quintessentially Impressionist in its fleeting effects of sunlight, yet unerringly modern in its strong surface orientation and decorative abstraction, Paysage de matin would have left no doubt to contemporary viewers about Impressionism’s continued ability to break new ground–and surely this was Monet’s aim. When he painted this striking landscape, Impressionism was facing its greatest challenge to date. At the eighth Impressionist exhibition two years earlier, Seurat had stunned the art world by exhibiting the monumental Dimanche à la Grande Jatte, a veritable manifesto of his pioneering Neo-Impressionist technique. With its emphasis on structure and science, the canvas represented a direct assault on the essential premises of Impressionism and heralded the arrival of a new avant-garde idiom. Unlike Pissarro, who was won over to the Neo-Impressionist camp, and Renoir, who had been working since 1881 in a strongly classicizing vein, Monet remained a dedicated proponent of charter Impressionism, and he took up Seurat’s challenge with aplomb. “He must have realized that he was truly on his own,” Tucker has written, “and that if Impressionism was going to continue to be a viable style equal to the likes of Seurat’s pseudo-scientific method, it was up to him to prove it” (op. cit., 1995, p. 127).
The present painting caught the eye of James Fountain Sutton, a key player in the early marketing of Impressionism in the United States and a dedicated collector. In 1885, Sutton proposed to the Parisian dealer Durand-Ruel that he mount an exhibition of French Impressionist painting at the American Art Association in New York, of which Sutton was a founding member. Durand-Ruel, struggling to bolster his finances, eagerly accepted. The exhibition, which opened in April 1886, marked the first large-scale introduction of Impressionism to American audiences and met with great fanfare. “New York has never seen a more interesting exhibition than this,” The Critic unequivocally declared (quoted in J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York, 1961, p. 532). Sutton himself soon became a major collector of Monet’s work, purchasing Paysage de matin directly from the artist in the same year that it was painted. The canvas remained in his family’s august collection for nearly half a century.
Monet at Giverny, 1889. Photo by Theodore Robinson. The Wildenstein Institute, Paris.
Claude Monet, Prairie à Giverny, 1888. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
Claude Monet, Prairie à Giverny, 1894. Princeton University Art Museum.
Claude Monet, Sous les peupliers, effet de soleil, 1887. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.
Claude Monet, Le champ d’avoine aux coquelicots, 1890. Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain, Strasbourg.
Claude Monet, Meules au soleil, milieu du jour, 1890-1891. Australian National Gallery, Canberra.