Toward the end of the summer of 1890, Claude Monet embarked on one of the most significant projects of his career: his series of paintings of the stacks of wheat that stood in a field adjacent to his property at Giverny. In these works, he explored the boundaries of Impressionism as a realistic, empirical mode of representation, while considering the influence of memory and intuition on perception.
After reaping a harvest, farmers built fifteen- to twenty-foot-high stacks of grain that remained outdoors for some months before being threshed. These forms, which appear somewhat mysterious in Monet’s paintings, were ordinary elements of northern France’s agricultural landscape, and carried certain symbolic associations with sustenance and abundance. What renders them enigmatic is the extraordinary atmosphere surrounding them—the "envelope," as the artist described it, of pulsating, colored light that both defines and alters forms.
Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer) must have been one of the first paintings in the series. This becomes apparent through the season that it represents—the raking light emanating from a low sun, its warm yellow tempered by crisp blue, is unmistakably autumnal. Moreover, its compositional structure is relatively illusionistic, with a logical sequence of planes receding into the distance: shadows, stacks, trees marking the field’s border, distant hills, and finally sky. Some months later, having become more familiar with the topography, Monet devised a more abstract spatial configuration in Stack of Wheat (Snow Effect, Overcast Day). Here, under a bleak, white, winter sky, a single stack casts a stunted shadow on the snow-covered ground. A band of blue, flecked with more white, serves as background; trees and hills have merged. Against this pattern, Monet introduced a farmhouse with a peaked roof that echoes the crown of the stack; the building balances the arrangement and represents shelter from the evident cold.
Monet planned the schedule of his entire household around his painting activities. According to one account, he even paid a local farmer to delay dismantling some of the stacks so that he could complete his works. He set up several easels outdoors, moving from one to another as the light changed. At certain points during the day, Blanche Hoschedé (one of the daughters of Monet’s companion, Alice Hoschedé, who lived with him at Giverny) carried these canvases back to the studio and exchanged them for others. Ultimately, Monet’s Stacks of Wheat series is a study not only of weather and light, but also of the passage of time, experienced by the painter himself and manifested in the inanimate stacks. As Monet’s friend the critic Gustave Geffroy wrote: "These stacks . . . are a fulcrum for light and shadow; sun and shade circle about them at a steady pace; they reflect the final warmth, the last rays; they become enveloped in mist, sprinkled with rain, frozen in snow; they are in harmony with the distance, the earth, and the sun."
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