On May 4, 1891, an exhibition of recent works by Claude Monet opened at the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris, including a Series of Haystacks (1890-1891) as the pictures were identified in the catalogue. These paintings were an important breakthrough, not only in Monet’s career but in the history of French art. Curiously, their novelty was less the result of their style than of their subject matter, and less because the subject was in itself unusual than because each of the fifteen paintings had the same subject, and were intended to be seen together. It seems amazing that, in 1891, these images of mundane haystacks, with their various seasonal and temporal backgrounds and their scumbled, almost corrugated, facture, were explained by the critics in such evocative, poetic prose. The subject of the paintings was essentially ignored in the various attempts to render into words Monet’s pictorial transcriptions of time. For Gustave Geffroy, they represented "the poetry of the universe in the small space of a field.., a synthetic summary of the meteors and the elements." And, for Desire Louis, the viewer was "in the presence of sensations of place and of time in the harmonious and melancholic flow of sunsets, ends of day, and gentle dawns."
Monet’s Haystacks could now be seen by his contemporaries as fundamentally anti-naturalist: they were about time and color rather than about the way natural form and light interact. The Haystacks were evocations of nature, a series of works unified by an overall surface and a decorative, thematic harmony. For Monet, the Haystack series provided an opportunity to combine a basic doctrine of Impressionism — capturing what he called "instantaneous" moments in nature’s temporal cycles — with the modem notions of painting that sought to extract from and reconstruct nature according to the formal and expressive potential of the picture itself.
Monet’s style and subject matter had changed drastically from his early Impressionist days. After moving to rural Giverny in 1883, he began to evolve a landscape imagery that was fundamentally romantic, with picturesque scenes and few, if any, human figures. 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. Its association of abundance and of man’s ability to sustain himself and his animals on the richness of the harvest are obvious and compelling. Surely, Monet, who lived for many years in rural settings, knew the importance of the haystack to his neighbors and, by making them the clear motif in his scenes, allowed their meanings to unfold in a complex succession.
Clearly, it had become impossible for the great landscape painter to compress his many simultaneous sensations and feelings onto a single canvas: he had to work in series in order to convey more clearly and completely the nature of his struggle to master the representation of time. He worked furiously in the last days of spring 1891 to bring a group of fifteen independent canvases into collective harmony. In the end, he succeeded in making something unique — a series of separate paintings that are at once dependent and independent. The individual paintings succeed on certain levels as works of art. However; it is only in creating groups of the pictures that the complexity of Monet’s intentions can be understood.
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