Interpretive Resource

Claude Monet's Stacks of Wheat, 1890-91

Discussion questions and activities for home and classroom about Monet's series of wheatstack paintings.

Manual: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Education Department: Teacher Programs. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1995, p. 127-128.

Wheatstack, 1890-91
Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Oil on canvas, 25 7/8 x 36 1/4 in. (65.6 x 92 cm)
Wheatstacks (End of Summer), 1890-91
Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 39 3/8 in. (60 x 100 cm)

It was while painting his series of wheatstacks that Monet realized that he needed to work more slowly and deliberately in order to capture the moment. Take an inventory of everything you see in these two canvases. Describe the basic composition of each painting. Are Monet’s color choices real or imagined? Explain. How does Monet persuade us of the time of day and the time of year in each painting? Describe how the paint was applied to each canvas. Suppose you could walk into these paintings and sit down. Where would you choose to be? Why?

While they appear in these two paintings as simple, isolated objects, the wheatstacks represent, in fact, fairly complex structures skillfully created by farmers according to set rules. Why do you think Monet might have chosen wheatstacks as central objects of this series of paintings? Why was it important to the community to have long-lasting, well-preserved wheatstacks? What symbolism is represented by the image of a wheatstack? (Plentiful harvest.) Can you think of other metaphors for agricultural abundance?

1. Monet worked on these paintings, and many others, at his home in Giverny, a small village in Normandy. Locate this agricultural area in France on the map included. How far is it from Paris? What important river runs by this village? Where does this river come from and where does it go? How might this contribute to the abundance of crops in this area? What regions in the U.S. provide agricultural bounty?
2. Monet’s Wheatstacks are free-standing objects in an open field. In this way they are similar to a sundial’s needle which casts a shadow that shifts as the sun moves from sunrise to sunset. Construct a cone-like wheatstack out of paper and place this on a level paper surface out-of-doors. Outline the shadows and then measure their length and shape at four times over the course of a day (early morning, noon, afternoon, and before sunset). Record the results. What happens to the length of the shadow as the sun moves across the sky?
3. Assuming the hills in the background of the painting are in the south, what is the time of day? Considering the color of the sunlight in this painting, does your assumption make sense? Although the other Wheatstack depicts overcast weather, can you speculate about the time of day?
4. When natural light falls on an object, the shadow it casts is dark. But is a shadow always black? If you look carefully at Monet’s Wheatstacks, you find that he painted the shadows in blue, lavender, and green tones, without the use of black paint. There is a simple experiment you can perform that will tell if Monet used his artistic sensibility to imagine color in the shade or if colored shadows do indeed exist.
Illuminate a small object (a cone to resemble a wheatstack) from one side with a bright light source (flashlight, desk lamp, or slide projector). Place a transparent colored filter between the light source and the object. Notice that the object’s shadow assumes a color when viewed in some residual room light. This color is the opposite complementary color of the filter color. In Monet’s painting, the sun casts a golden orange glow over the wheatstack. The shadow shows the complementary color: blue-lavender. This phenomenon was first noticed by the French painter Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) whose earlier paintings influenced all the Impressionists.


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