In early December 1869, as temperatures dipped below freezing in the Seine valley, Monet arrived for an extended visit at Pissarro’s home in Louveciennes, a short distance west of Bougival, where he had settled with his future wife Camille and their young son Jean in June. His financial worries that year had been legion–at one point, he wrote to Bazille, he had no bread, no wine, no light, and no paint–and he may have hoped to pool resources with Pissarro. He had been bitterly disappointed, moreover, when both of his submissions to the 1869 Salon were rejected, and he sought solace and strength in the company of like-minded artists. During the late summer, he and Renoir had painted together at the popular bathing and boating establishment La Grenouillère, breaking new ground in the rendering of reflected light and other plein-air effects. Now, with Renoir back in Paris, he and Pissarro would take their turn working side-by-side, continuing to forge the revolutionary visual language that would come to be known as Impressionism.
Shortly after Monet’s arrival at the Pissarro residence–a large yellow house called the Maison Retrou, located at 22, route de Versailles, near the center of Louveciennes–a heavy snowfall descended upon Paris and its western suburbs. “We are in the heart of winter,” Le Journal Illustré could report by December 12th. “Since last week the thermometer has shown us that happy skaters may soon take to the lake. And the snow, the first to fall this winter, white, silent and slow, has covered Paris in a brilliant shroud” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1998, p. 222). Almost as soon as the storm had subsided, Monet and Pissarro ventured out-of-doors to confront the heady challenge of capturing the snowy effects.
Judging from the amount of snow on the ground, the present view is the second in a pair of dazzling effets de neige that Monet painted in the ensuing days, setting up his easel on the route de Versailles right in front of Pissarro’s house. The first of the two canvases (Wildenstein, no. 147) shows the road looking north-east toward the route de Saint-Germain, with the Marly aqueduct in the distance. The Maison Retrou is the building with dormer windows on the left in the foreground; on the opposite side of the street is the house where the local blacksmith Pierre Huet lived. Pissarro painted the snowy route de Versailles from approximately the same vantage point at least three times during Monet’s visit, the two artists setting up their easels nearly side-by-side (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 138-139 and 142). Monet chose to render the vista at midday under a clear blue sky; the sun has melted most of the snow on the left side of the street, but an abundant amount remains in the road itself and to the right.
Monet painted the present canvas a few days later when even more of the snow had melted, creating fresh visual effects. It was late afternoon when he went outside to paint, and he turned to face in the opposite direction, looking south-west along the route de Versailles into the gloriously setting sun. Pissarro’s house is now to the right of the road in the very foreground, cropped by the edge of the canvas; just beyond it is a cluster of buildings known as the Maison des Pages du Roy, constructed under Louis XIV to board the royal pages when the king was at the nearby Château de Marly. Pissarro also painted the route de Versailles looking in this direction during Monet’s visit, but he set up his easel slightly further south, drawing closer to the château grounds (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 141-142). He selected a vantage point very similar to Monet’s, though, for a springtime view (no. 153), and he reprised it under snow in 1871, when he returned to Louveciennes after the Franco-Prussian War (no. 213, the Maison des Pages replaced with a stand of firs).
Unlike Pissarro, whose snow scenes from Louveciennes represent his very first foray into winter painting, Monet had braved the cold as early as 1865 to capture the uniquely subtle and stunning effects of the season (see Wildenstein, no. 50). He painted a sequence of four snowscapes at Honfleur in the winter of 1867 (Wildenstein, nos. 79-82), attracting surprise and admiration from a local journalist who came across him at the motif, bundled up in three overcoats, a foot warmer at the base of his easel. In early 1869, shortly before leaving the Normandy coast for the Seine valley, he painted an even more ambitious and virtuoso snow scene, the brilliant white Magpie, which was one of the paintings that the unadventurous Salon jury rejected that spring (Wildenstein, no. 133). “I find the winter perhaps more agreeable than the summer, and naturally I am working all the time,” he wrote to Bazille. And then presciently: “I believe that this year I am going to do some serious things” (ibid., p. 84).
Time did not diminish Monet’s enthusiasm for winter work, which he faced with hardiness and good humor. “I painted today in the snow, which falls endlessly,” he wrote to Gustave Geffroy in 1896 from Norway, which he had chosen over Venice for a major painting campaign. “You would have laughed if you could have seen me completely white, with icicles hanging from my beard like stalactites” (ibid., p. 35).
The present painting stands out among Monet’s many winter scenes, some of them nearly monochrome, for the extraordinary vibrancy of its palette. The sky is filled with banks of rosy-pink cloud, underneath which hints of bright blue are evident. At the horizon line, the sunset intensifies to blazing hues of yellow and orange, which reflect against the slush that is melting in the route de Versailles. The vivid colors of the sky and the roadway contrast with the dark brown tones of houses and trees, plunged into dusky shadow as the sun dips low. Most striking of all, Monet has represented the patchy snow with broad dabs of pure, unmixed white in striking contrast against the dark ground underneath, which lead the viewer’s eye toward the horizon line in the far distance. Where snow still lingers on the rooftops, it is rendered with single, economical strokes of white so fresh and spontaneous that one can easily imagine Monet adding them as a bravura finishing touch, just before declaring the painting complete.
Unlike many of Monet’s other perspective road views, this brilliant sunset scene does not include any figures along the village lane. The winter day grows late, and townspeople have retreated indoors for the evening; the artist is apparently alone in front of his motif. To paint his first view of the route de Versailles, a lively midday tableau, Monet had set up his easel in the middle of the road, which appears to rush away like an arrow, the perspectival axes meeting at a single vanishing point dead ahead. For the present composition, in contrast, the artist positioned himself alongside the road and painted it receding into the distance at a diagonal, slowing the pace at which the viewer’s eye moves through the scene. The resulting impression of quiet domesticity contrasts with the extravagant natural effects of sunset, which give the painting its abiding visual drama.
Monet remained at Bougival until July 1870, continuing to visit frequently with Pissarro. In spring, he received word that his two submissions to the Salon–a boldly experimental canvas from La Grenouillère and a much more conventional Déjeuner–had again been rejected (Wildenstein, nos. 132 and 136). This stinging rebuff confirmed to Monet that he should expect nothing more from official channels and finally convinced him that an alternative to the Salon was necessary, an idea that he and Bazille had bandied about since 1867. In the meantime, his finances continued to worsen. “This fatal refusal has taken the bread out of my mouth,” he lamented to Arsène Houssaye, the editor of L’Artiste (quoted in P.H. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New York, 1995, p. 41). Before leaving the Seine valley to summer at Trouville, Monet left a cache of paintings with Pissarro at Louveciennes, fearing that they would be seized by creditors.
The next year, however, brought an unexpected windfall. In the fall of 1870, Monet, Camille (by then Madame Monet), and Jean took refuge in London to escape the Franco-Prussian war. The Pissarro and Sisley families did the same, while Renoir and Bazille, both unmarried, were mobilized; the latter was tragically killed in combat. In London, the painter Daubigny–who had resigned from the Salon jury in protest following Monet’s rejection earlier that year–introduced him to Paul Durand-Ruel, forcefully encouraging the dealer to purchase works from the up-and-coming artist. Durand-Ruel took up the challenge, quickly becoming Monet’s chief conduit for selling pictures.
By the time that Monet settled in Argenteuil in December 1871, his financial woes were–temporarily, at least–a thing of the past. Finally, the painter was in a position to focus on organizing an independent association of artists, which would mount its own unjuried exhibitions. The present painting found a buyer around this time, possibly the publisher Michel Lévy but more likely the fellow painter Henri Michel-Lévy, part of the forward-thinking circle who regularly gathered at the Café Guerbois in Paris. Monet attempted to recruit Michel-Lévy for the “Société Anonyme Cooperative des Artistes” but the latter declined, arguing that the Salon should instead be reformed from within. Monet and his colleagues were undeterred, of course, and the pioneering First Impressionist Exhibition–the touchstone for all such future modernist efforts–opened in Paris in April 1874.