Interpretive Resource

Examination: Capturing Alterations in Nature in Monet's "Stacks of Wheat" Series

An introduction to some thirty paintings of stacks of wheat that Monet painted in the fall and winter of 1890-91.

Book: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
Art Institute of Chicago. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in The Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, p. 134-35.

Claude Monet made some thirty paintings of stacks of wheat in a field near his Giverny home in the fall and winter of 1890–91. Although the series proffers neither a narrative nor a straightforward allegorical message, it is rich with significance on a number of levels. These two scenes for example are redolent with quiet finality, winter being the end of the year and sunset the end of the day. At the same time, the artist asserted the cyclical essence of the seasons and of his own creative activity.

Monet was incredibly responsive to the nuances of nature. When the field and hills were covered in snow, he saw blue, lavender, and pink within the icy whiteness, making Stacks of Wheat (Sunset, Snow Effect) a dazzling, almost fiery, otherworldly scene. When the thaw came, he adjusted his palette and focus accordingly. The melting of the snow revealed the earth and the features of the background; the sun no longer glares angrily but glows gently. In Stack of Wheat (Thaw, Sunset), the stack—with its deep, subtle, russet color, the result of months of mellowing—seems to loom larger than those in Sunset, Snow Effect, but their actual sizes are roughly equal.

Monet intended the Stacks of Wheat paintings to function both independently and as parts of a series. He realized that he would have to break up the group when he sold individual canvases, but, before they were dispersed, he wished to exhibit them together. In May 1891, he included fifteen of them in a display of recent works held at Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris. Collectors had already shown great interest in the Stacks of Wheat; by the time the exhibition opened, all but five of the fifteen had been sold, many to Americans, including Chicagoan Bertha Honoré Palmer, who purchased nine versions of the subject. The Art Institute today has six works from the series, five of which appeared in the 1891 Durand-Ruel show, and thus provides a rare opportunity to appreciate their cumulative effect.

Critics and artists were equally dazzled by Monet’s achievement. His longtime Impressionist colleague Camille Pissarro—who, when he first heard about the series, had criticized Monet for repeating himself and for selling out to the market—changed his mind after seeing the exhibition. He wrote to his son Lucien: "That the effect is both luminous and masterly is uncontestable. The colors are at once attractive and strong. The drawing beautiful, but insubstantial, in the backgrounds as well. It is the work of a very great artist . . . the canvases seem to breathe contentedly."

Working in series allowed Monet to reconcile his determination to render instantaneously what he saw in front of him with the constant alterations that occur in nature. "For me," he explained, "a landscape hardly exists at all as a landscape, because its appearance is constantly changing; but it lives by virtue of its surroundings—the air and light—which vary continually." With his Stacks of Wheat, Monet redefined once again the genre of landscape painting.

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Claude Monet
Claude Monet

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