Monet: ‘I want to paint the air’

Three landscapes offered in London on 7 March — depicting the Seine, the River Creuse and a meadow in Giverny — illustrate the French painter’s ceaseless quest to achieve ‘nothing less than the impossible’

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Matinée sur la Seine, temps net, 1897. Oil on canvas. 32⅛ x 36⅜ in (81.6 x 92.4 cm). Sold for £14,397,500 on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

After watching Claude Monet at work on the Normandy coast in the mid-1880s, the writer Guy de Maupassant described him as ‘not a painter actually, but a hunter’. Monet would stalk his landscape scenes, ‘lying in wait for the sun and shadows’, only starting a canvas once the visual effects were to his liking.

He was famously dedicated to his métier, often painting for 14 hours each day without a break — and in all weathers. On a trip to Norway, snow fell so hard during one session’s work that he was left with icicles hanging from his beard.

Not that Monet thrived only in far-off places and tricky meteorological conditions. Many of his finest works were completed in the salubrious surroundings of Giverny, the village he called home from 1883 until his death in 1926. This small farming community of 300 inhabitants was located at the confluence of the River Seine and its tributary, the Epte, 45 miles north-west of Paris. Unlike scores of other settlements dotted along the Seine, it remained untouched by encroaching modernisation.

Claude Monet, The Boat Studio, 1876, the self-portrait shows the artist at work in his studio boat on the Seine

Claude Monet (1840-1926), The Boat Studio (Le Bateau-atelier), 1876. Oil on canvas. 72 x 59.8 cm. The self-portrait shows the artist at work in his studio boat on the Seine in Argentueil. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Photo: © Barnes Foundation / Bridgeman Images

Upon moving to Giverny in his early forties, Monet rented a pink stucco house called Le Pressoir on two-and-a-half acres of land. It was large enough to accommodate the artist, his partner Alice, and their combined brood of eight children (from their respective marriages earlier in life). Le Pressoir also came with a barn, which Monet converted into a studio.

He didn’t think twice about purchasing the property when it came up for sale in 1890. Not long afterwards, he wrote to the Paris-based art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel that he was ‘certain of never finding a better situation or more beautiful countryside’ than in Giverny.

He certainly embraced its artistic potential. In his first years in the village, he set out with his canvases at dawn almost daily, walking over hills and through valleys, across marshes and meadows, among poppies and poplars, constantly seeking — and painting — fresh subjects. In the case of Matinée sur la Seine, temps net (1897), a picture being offered in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale at Christie’s on 7 March 2024, he was also known to work from a bateau-atelier (studio-boat) in the middle of the river.

Claude Monet, Matinee sur la Seine, temps net, 1897, in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 7 March at Christie's

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Matinée sur la Seine, temps net, 1897. Oil on canvas. 32⅛ x 36⅜ in (81.6 x 92.4 cm). Sold for £14,397,500 on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

For this painting, he chose a setting where the Epte fed into the Seine. We look into the breaking dawn, the Giverny bank on the left and a wooded islet known as the Ile aux Orties on the right. Trees on both sides dominate the scene. Those on the Giverny bank are particularly full, their branches arching like a curtain being raised on the landscape beyond.

Shadow blurs the boundary between the surface of the water and the riverbanks, this crepuscular scene only revealing itself to the viewer slowly, after our eyes alight upon the soft-blue sky in the distance.

The painting forms part of a celebrated series called ‘Mornings on the Seine’. This comprises 21 canvases, each focusing on the same view of the titular river, painted at different times between the first rays of dawn light and the full brilliance of the sun at mid-morning. Monet worked on the series during the summers of 1896 and 1897, recording the delicate effects of the rising sun on his chosen location. (Typically, he would start pictures on the bateau-atelier before completing them in his studio on dry land.)

‘Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat. I want to paint the air in which the bridge, the house and the boat are to be found’
Claude Monet

He conceived ‘Mornings on the Seine’ as a connected sequence of canvases, as he had his paintings in previous series depicting sole motifs under varying light conditions: those of haystacks (1888-91), a row of poplars (1891), and the façade of Rouen Cathedral (1892-94).

The art critic Maurice Guillemot, who came to Giverny to interview Monet in the summer of 1897, described one early-morning session as follows: ‘3.30 a.m. His torso snug in a white woollen hand-knit; his feet in a pair of sturdy hunting boots with thick dew-proof soles; his head covered by a battered brown felt hat, with the brim turned up to keep off the sun; a cigarette in his mouth… [Monet] pushes open the door [of Le Pressoir], walks down the steps, follows the central path through his garden… and comes to the river. There he unties his rowboat moored in the reeds along the bank, and with a few strokes reaches the [bateau-atelier] at anchor. A local man… who accompanies him, unpackages… his stretched canvases… and the artist sets to work.’

Claude Monet in his garden at Giverny around 1890-95 (detail), photographed by the American artist Lilla Cabot Perry

Claude Monet in his garden at Giverny around 1890-95 (detail), photographed by the American artist Lilla Cabot Perry. Photo: © 2024 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All rights reserved / Bridgeman Images

Guillemot went on to describe the ‘Mornings on the Seine’ series as ‘a marvel of contagious emotion and intense poetry’.

Monet was born in Paris in 1840, and apart from a brief spell in London three decades later — while the Franco-Prussian War was being waged in his homeland — he lived exclusively by the Seine. It was an enduring source of inspiration for him. ‘I have painted the Seine all my life, at all hours of the day, and in every season,’ he declared. ‘I have never been bored with it. To me it is always different.’

In the early part of his career, when based in or near Paris, Monet commonly depicted the recreation and industry that the river sustained — such as in the Impressionist painting from 1869, La Grenouillère (now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection in New York). Over time, however, his interest in human presence waned, and his focus shifted markedly to nature.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Ravin de la Creuse, 1889. Oil on canvas. 28⅞ x 28⅞ in (73.2 x 73.2 cm). Estimate: £2,000,000-3,000,000. Offered in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

A second canvas by Monet being offered in the London sale is Ravin de la Creuse (1889), created during a three-month trip to the Creuse valley in the French highland region of the Massif Central. The landscape there was dramatic: fast-flowing waters wound their way through rugged hills covered with windswept heather and broom. Monet set up his easel on the side of one of those hills and painted 10 works depicting a carefully selected vista, overlooking the River Creuse, at different times of day. By choosing to depict the same view in often subtly differing conditions of light and weather, over the course of a limited period of time, he created what has been considered his first true “series” of paintings.

A third canvas in the sale is Prairie fleurie à Giverny. Monet painted this a year after Ravin de la Creuse, when he was back home. It captures the broad meadow next to Le Pressoir, seen beneath a vast sky, its trees, grass and flowers set moving by a robust wind. This field provided Monet with source material for several years after his arrival in Giverny, reappearing in pictures painted in different weather conditions and at various times of day.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Prairie fleurie à Giverny, 1890. Oil on canvas. 25½ x 36¼ in (65 x 92 cm). Estimate: £5,500,000-8,500,000. Offered in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Given the variety of viewpoints in these works, they technically shouldn’t be considered a series. However, they do show Monet’s ability to find seemingly endless inspiration in a single landscape.

In coming up with the concept for picture series, he was at once a pioneer and a prophet. No artist had created in this manner before, but Monet anticipated a host of 20th-century figures by painting serially: that is, by creating ensembles of very similar, connected images.

By focusing on a particular motif over and over again, he sought to set down on canvas something more than direct observation. He sought to share, after extensive exposure, his hard-won understanding of the essence of a place.

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‘Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat,’ he said. ‘I want to paint the air in which the bridge, the house and the boat are to be found — the beauty of the air around them, and that is nothing less than the impossible.’

Many might argue that, modesty notwithstanding, Monet came close to achieving this impossibility.

Highlights from the 20th and 21st Century Art sales will be on view at Christie’s in New York until 19 February 2024, followed by Hong Kong from 21 to 23 February. The auctions take place at Christie’s in London, and online, from 27 February until 21 March

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