Research point: Artists who work in series with the landscape ~ Part 1: Claude Monet
For this research point, I’ll be looking at three artists over three posts: one suggested by the course book, one suggested by my tutor, and one of my own choosing, who I feel has relevance to my likely subject for assignment 3.
Claude MONET 1840-1926
French landscape painter, and leading Impressionist. The latter half of his career was largely devoted to working in series. The Waterlilies series (painted in his garden at Giverny) is possibly his best known, but I shall be looking at several others. Ostensibly, the motivation behind each series was to capture his chosen subjects in varying light and weather conditions, at different points in the year. More than that, however, he was studying atmosphere, and the way it was transformed by the above elements. He used repetition to explore all these factors. One of the main challenges he faced in painting outdoors was the speed needed to catch the fast-changing light, and the subsequent fast-changing colours. In order to manage this, he developed the habit of taking several canvases out with him at a time (often transported via wheelbarrow) – this enabled him to to work on them at different times of the day, depending on the conditions of light and weather he needed for the individual paintings. Increasing availability of paint sold in tubes made it easier for artists to work outside, whereas previously, they would have had to mix pigments themselves. Likewise with the introduction of portable easels. Even so, Monet chose to do the early work outdoors, but invariably finished the pictures in his studio. The reason for this was that he considered the series as a whole (intending for them to be exhibited that way), rather than as a set of individual works, and so wanted to create a unified and harmonious range of colours and finishes, which were more achievable indoors. In this way, he was able to focus on the feelings of universality and timelessness that he sought to convey. Atmosphere rather than geography.
The Haystacks series, several of which can be seen above, began in 1890. They were painted in the farmlands of Normandy, north of Paris. Monet’s intention that this series of pictures, all with the same subject, should be seen together was highly unusual at the time. ‘Unlike the traditional Romantic landscape painters, who tended to paint large, all-encompassing vistas, Monet isolated specific elements of nature for their potential as carriers of various moods or human feelings and not as narrative devices. For Monet, the haystack was a form full of resonance’ (Brettell, cited by Art Institute Chicago, 2013). For him, they carried associations of abundance and sustenance. He sought to capture what he referred to as “instantaneity” – those moments in time when light and colour combined to change the atmosphere, the aura surrounding his subject, or the “envelope”, as he called it. He began this by underpainting, which he refined over time, in terms of definition, texture and palette, with his colours growing increasingly complex (Stevenson, 2013).
Another series, painted in 1891, showed 24 views of poplar trees on the bank of the River Epte, near Giverny. The character of each of these seems so very different, according to the colours Monet chose to use. The direction of light, how diffuse or how intense it was, the muting effect of clouds – all these factors contribute to making all of these pictures highly individual, even though they were painted from almost the same spot every time. Monet used a rowing boat both to store his various canvases and as a ‘floating studio’ for this series , which depicted the trees in different seasons and at different times of day. ‘Monet’s efforts to record the scene were so exacting, one friend reported, that the artist sometimes had only seven minutes to work on a particular canvas before the sunlight shifted on the leaves’ (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2013). As well as for their elegant linearity, these trees may have appealed to Monet on the grounds of symbolic association, as poplars were a popular French motif, being planted along rural roadsides and on country estates. ‘They also exemplify a mounting impulse toward the decorative… [which] …may have been intensified by his interest in Japanese art, with its focus on decorative dimensions and nature motifs’ (Christies, 2011).
Monet wasn’t only concerned with rural landscapes, however. Between 1892 and 1894, he painted more than 30 canvases of Rouen Cathedral. He rented rooms across the road from the Cathedral, in order to capture the effects of changing light on the facade, at different times of day and year. Interestingly, Monet depicted the building very close-up, ‘in such way that the architecture, due to the almost complete absence of perspective, loses its grandeur and it is even sectioned in the towers and pinnacles. So the building is here not more than a background, an “excuse”, to show the authentic protagonist of the composition: the power of the painting to represent the dynamic quality of the light and the atmosphere, capable of giving life to something as stony and inanimate as the imposing facade of the Gothic Cathedral’ (Fernandez, 2013). Working so close to the subject served to flatten the perspective, placing the emphasis more on the texture of the encrusted surface of the building. He visited Rouen twice, in 1892 and 1893 (in February to April of those years), and worked from early morning to late evening, painting the cathedral. As always in his series work, he worked in rotation on a number of canvases, moving from one to another as the light changed. The canvases were dated 1894 as he completed them at home in Giverny that year.
The last series I want to look at here focuses on the Houses of Parliament. Nineteen canvases, all the same size, depicting the same scene, from the same vantage point. Monet began this series in 1899. Because the light would change so swiftly, the artist prepared his canvases by sketching the building beforehand, adding colour and detail in situ. I’ll admit that this is my favourite series by Monet. There is a real sense of movement in these pictures – the light feels almost radiant. For me, the colour variations here are the most effective of those in all his work. Monet loved the London fog, and this series explored the ways in which Parliament was distorted and obscured by it. More than that, though, he was showing ‘the effect of light on the atmosphere itself’ (C. Monet Gallery, 2013).
Art Institute Chicago (2013), Interpretive Resource [Online], Available at http://www.artic.edu/aic/resources/resource/380 (Accessed 18 October 2013).
C. Monet Gallery (2013), Houses of Parliament [Online], Available at http://www.cmonetgallery.com/houses-of-parliament.aspx (Accessed 19 October 2013).
Christies (2011), Claude Monet, Les Peupliers [Online], Available at http://www.christies.com/features/claude-monet-les-peupliers-1374-1.aspx (Accessed 19 October 2013).
Fernandez, G. (2013), Claude Monet: The Rouen Cathedral Series – The Climax of Impressionism [Online], Available at http://www.theartwolf.com/monet_cathedral.htm (Accessed 19 October 2013).
Philadelphia Museum of Art (2013), Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art [Online], Available at http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/52186.html (Accessed 19 October 2013).
Stevenson, L. (2013), Claude Monet [Online], Available at http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t118/e1778?q=monet&search=quick&pos=2&_start=1#firsthit (Accessed 18 October 2013).