Monet first started using wheatstacks as a subject in 1888. Enormous stacks of harvested grain, which rose fifteen to twenty feet tall — products of a neighbor’s fields — stood just outside his farm-house door at Giverny. In the following year, he completed the first Wheatstacks suite, and he again traveled to the Creuse Valley to paint. He also waged a year-long battle organizing a subscription of artists, writers, and friends to purchase Manet’s controversial Olympia for ultimate placement in the Louvre, thus fixing the forerunner of Impressionism firmly inside the national museum. Monet resumed work on a wheatstack series, probably at very end of summer 1890, when farmers would have again begun cutting the fields of wheat and oats to build new imposing mounds that would stand for months before being threshed.
Monet painted at least twenty-five wheatstack canvases though the fading of fall into the snows of winter 1891. He painted both in the field, where he worked at several easels simultaneously, often carried by a trailing band of children, and in the studio, where he refined pictorial harmonies. It was an arduous undertaking. The pioneer of the instant glance, the quick look, came to realize that he needed to work much more slowly, more deliberately, in order to capture the moment. As he wrote to Gustave Geffroy in October 1890: "I have become so slow in my work that I am exasperated, but the further I go, the more I see that one has to work a lot in order to express what I am looking for: ‘instantaneity,’ especially the atmosphere, the same light diffused everywhere, and more than ever I am disgusted by easy things that come at once."
In May 1891, Monet hung fifteen of the wheatstack canvases next to each other in one small room in the Galerie Durand-Ruel. Like his Creuse Valley views of the same subject, Monet considered the wheatstack pictures part of a collective ensemble, at once dependent and independent. The exhibition thus firmly inaugurated to the public Monet’s now renowned method of working in series, in which he repeatedly examined a particular motif at different times and under different atmospheric conditions. The show was an unprecedented critical and financial success, with paintings sold both in multiples and singly. According to Geffroy’s review, Monet had understood "the possibility of embodying the poetry of the universe in the small space of a field." Less than two decades before, Monet, along with his avant-garde compatriots, had been an outcast. Now critics proclaimed him "among the greatest artists who painted the landscape of France."
The Wheatstacks marked a breakthrough in Monet’s career as well as in the history of French art. They enabled him to combine the basic doctrine of Impressionism — capturing instantaneous moments in nature's temporal cycle — with the Post-Impressionist’s prolonged and personal examination of the act of perceiving. The series did not function as an accurate record of sequence of time nor as a row of stacks of wheat. Instead, as Monet told Geffroy, he was "more and more driven with the need to render ce que j’epreuve" — what he felt or experienced as he encountered the world of nature. And he came to experience nature differently. "For me, landscape hardly exists at all as landscape, because its appearance is constantly changing," he said; "but it lives by virtue of its surroundings — the air and light — which vary continually." To paint the subject only once would deny this constant variation over time. Thus what Monet so slowly pursued was not the objective fact of these stacks of grain, as defined by light and air, but how his eye perceived them over the passage of time. The landscape served, then, as a point of departure, a vehicle for artistic self-expression. In this way, Monet’s series are testimony to one of the basic tenets of modern art: the notion that the artist can reconstruct nature according to the formal and expressive potential of the image itself.
The two Art Institute canvases shown in the slides, which were among the original fifteen on view in 1891, share a simple basic composition: one or two solitary stacks surrounded by parallel bands of field, hills, and sky. Their thatched shape echoes the roofs of the houses and barns behind them. Monet’s painstaking quest to capture "instantaneity" succeeds: the "envelope of light" surrounding the stacks illuminates them, throwing into relief the solidity of their shape. Crisp and clear in winter, soft and thick in summer, this light differentiates each view, as does the relationship between stack and setting. In the late summer views, and in nearly all of the autumn views as well, the pointed tops of the stacks often burst through the horizon up to the sky. But in most of the winter views, which constitute the core of the series, the long-lasting wheatstack seems wrapped by bands of hill and field, as if bedded down for the season.
In contrast to the monumental simplicity of the series’ composition and the shape of the stacks are Monet’s complex brushwork and hues. A Dutch critic who saw the noteworthy Durand-Ruel exhibition described them. At first disoriented, he wanted to escape "these gaudy colors, these zigzag lines, blues, yellows, greens, reds, browns dancing a crazy sarraband on the canvas." Then he became "irresistibly compelled by this medley of colors to recreate the artist’s vision." As in Normandy Train, the least material of substances — air and light — are given the most solidity, the most physicality, with coat upon coat of scumbled paint. These magical and rich tissues of color correspond to season. The prismatic hues of the summer stacks vibrate and shift, enlivening the simple mounds of grain from canvas to canvas. But in winter, the palette is reduced, frozen and dormant. As shown in the slides, colors range (in the words of the Dutch critic) "from the scarlet purple of summer to the chilly grey of a winter evening’s dying glow."
A distinctly French subject, the wheatstack was for Monet a resonant symbol for sustenance and survival. Complicated structures built according to specific guidelines, the stack often represented a farmer’s major wealth, a village’s most important commodity, and proof of the productivity of the French countryside. After all, what could be a better reminder than the muffin-shaped stacks that France was the bread-basket of Europe? Built by man but created by nature, the stacks were a familiar and reassuring sight — and a typically Post-Impressionist subject, far away from the commotion of the modem city. The Art Institute has the largest group of paintings from Monet’s Wheatstack series in the world; five of the six owned by the museum were among the original canvases on view at Durand-Ruel in 1891.
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