The year was 1885, the season late spring, 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 the sole subject of his art. “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 did not need to walk far to find an alluring motif. Canvas and easel in hand, he set off along the Chemin du Roy, the main regional thoroughfare that ran through Giverny. Heading west, he could see the burbling Ru, a tributary of the Epte, on his left; across the Ru was a broad meadow, the Plaine des Ajoux, and beyond that lay the right bank of the Seine. Even assuming a leisurely pace, he could not have walked for more than fifteen minutes–roughly a kilometer–when the vista to his right caught his eye. Just off the road, a row of fruit trees in full bloom swayed in the gentle breeze. Behind them, the land sloped up to meet the village road, where red-roofed houses clustered beside the medieval church of Sainte Radegonde, its steeple silhouetted against the expansive sky. All these sights combined to transform the scene into a veritable manifesto of the natural charms and pictorial possibilities that 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 painted two views of this panorama, both looking due north across the orchard. “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., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1978, p. 21). Monet was famously early to rise, and the first of the pair is a morning effect, the light filtered through a cloud-filled sky (Wildenstein, no. 986). He painted the present canvas after a break for lunch, with the afternoon sun illuminating the façades of the church and houses, which face south-west. Faint touches of pink in the sky, now nearly cloudless, herald the approach of dusk, but the light remains golden, raking across the bank of creamy blossoms in the foreground.
By the time he painted the present Printemps à Giverny, Monet had been living in the midst of this splendid countryside for just over two years. In February 1883, he had returned from a painting campaign in Etretat and resolved to find somewhere that he might make his permanent home–for the sake of his work, as well as the large, combined family of his own two sons and Alice’s brood of six. His current lease in Poissy–a dreadful town, he repeatedly lamented, too close to Paris and with few appealing landscape motifs–was set to expire in a few weeks. He informed Durand-Ruel in early April that he was surveying the area near Vernon, seeking a place that was suitably rural, near the Seine, and with a good school for the children. By the 15th, he had settled on the bucolic farming community of Giverny.
In short order, he found a sprawling, pink stucco house on two acres of land that was available for rent, with a barn to the west that could be converted into a studio. He leased the property with an advance from Durand-Ruel, and the family moved into their new home at the end of the month. “Once settled, I hope to produce masterpieces,” Monet wrote headily to the dealer in early May, “because I like the countryside very much” (ibid., pp. 15-16).
During his first months at Giverny, Monet focused his attention on the familiar motif of the Seine. “It always takes a while to get to know a new landscape,” he explained to Durand-Ruel with some trepidation (ibid., p. 19). After returning home from Bordighera in April 1884, though, he began to range widely over the surrounding terrain in every season and under every weather condition, painting meadows and marshes, winding country roads, and houses nestled into rolling hills. “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, no page).
Printemps à Giverny vividly attests to Monet’s belief in the value of tangible experience. The fruit trees fill the center of the canvas with a continuous band of flowers and foliage that stretches from edge to edge, breaking with the methodical unfolding of pictorial space into depth that was a hallmark of academic landscape practice. “These paintings give a vibrant sense of a spring day, the blossoming fruit trees making their presence emphatically–if temporarily–felt,” Richard Thomson has written. “They articulate the landscape painter’s thrill at seeing burgeoning nature push human presence to the margins” (Monet: The Seine and the Sea, exh. cat., National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 64). The church of Giverny is subsumed into the landscape, transfigured by sunlight, yet remains inaccessible to the viewer beyond the tree line; a deeper union with nature, for the unyieldingly agnostic Monet, triumphed over the mysticism of traditional religion.
Although Impressionism was widely known (if not yet universally accepted and admired) in France by the time that Monet settled at Giverny, this “new painting”–with its bold challenge to Salon norms–did not receive its first large-scale introduction across the Atlantic until 1886. That April, Durand-Ruel mounted a major show of paintings by Monet and his colleagues at the National Academy of Design in New York, eager to broaden his market and bolster his finances. The present view of Giverny, which the dealer had acquired from Monet the previous fall, was featured in this pioneering exhibition.
The show met with a superb response despite the novelty of the art on view. “Do not think that Americans are savages,” Durand-Ruel wrote 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). Printemps à Giverny found an eager buyer in Erwin Davis, a prosperous, self-made businessman and one of the earliest collectors of Impressionism in the United States. Six years before, Davis had commissioned the American painter J. Alden Weir to act as his agent in Paris and had begun to assemble a formidable collection of Romantic, Barbizon, Realist, and Impressionist masters. Along with Louisine Havemeyer and Alexander Cassatt, Davis was one of just three Americans who loaned paintings to the Durand-Ruel show in 1886, and he was a principal purchaser there as well.
Davis kept the present landscape until shortly before his death in 1899, when he returned a large cache of Impressionist canvases to Durand-Ruel. In 1913, the dealer sold the painting to Ellen Henderson, the older sister of New Orleans sugar magnate Hunt Henderson–another American collector well ahead of his time. It has remained in their family ever since.