Claude Monet took up still-life painting for a time around 1880. This traditional genre may seem an unlikely arena in which to stage a career shift, but Monet hoped to expand his market during a period of economic recession. He renewed his attempts to gain access to the Salon and tried to form associations with dealers other than Paul Durand-Ruel. In addition to being easier to sell than landscapes, still lifes allowed the artist to continue his experimentation with the textures and colors of nature during periods when bad weather prohibited him from painting outdoors.
Here, Monet depicted an assortment of two different kinds of apples, together with green and red grapes, and introduced an element of animation, even suspense. This still life is anything but still: the smaller apples at the lower right seem ready to roll off the steeply angled table, and the folds of the cloth appear to ripple like waves. Yet the artist’s control over the objects is evident, giving the composition a sense of stability and vitality. Not only did Monet adopt a magisterial view from above, but he also anchored the fruits and basket with palpable, grayish-green shadows. Exploring the possibilities of materials at hand—one of the central challenges of still-life painting—Monet found several ways to use the same dabs of white pigment: on the grapes, they represent translucent fragility; on the large apples, matte solidity; and on the little apples, glossy sheen.
Still life never became central to Monet’s repertory, but it is tempting to look from this brief experiment to those of his colleagues—most notably Paul Cézanne, who would bring the genre to new heights of complexity and beauty.
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