Durand-Ruel, New York (acquired from the above in 1892)
W.C. Van Horne, Montreal (acquired from the above on April 19, 1892)
Durand-Ruel, New York (acquired from the above in 1892)
Mr. & Mrs. Potter Palmer, Chicago (acquired from the above on November 22, 1892)
Honoré & Grace Palmer, Chicago (by descent from the above)
Sale: Christie’s, New York, May 14, 1986, lot 18
Acquired at the above sale
Commonly known as his Haystacks, these canvases were dominated by gigantic conical structures, composed of wheat or grain, stacked in such a way as to allow the stalks to dry and prevent mold prior to the grain’s separation from the stalk by a threshing machine. Each village did not possess its own thresher, and the wait for one of these traveling machines to reach a specific location often took months—grain cut in the summer might sit in its neat and careful stack until January or February of the following year. These stacks were over ten feet in height, sometimes reaching over twenty feet, their shape varying by region. The blond monoliths in Monet’s canvases possess the typical shape of the grain stacks in the Normandy countryside, a cylindrical base topped with a peaked dome, which lay all around him in the fields of Giverny.
Monet had spent the better part of the 1880s traveling throughout France and, upon occasion, further afield. From the wild and rocky coast of Belle Île in Brittany to the bright light and soft air of Antibes, his travels would provide him with new subjects and locations to populate his canvases. It was at his hotel on Belle Île that he, quite by accident, met Gustave Geffroy in 1886, who Monet found sitting at his accustomed table in the dining room. “Monet was both surprised and pleased upon his return to the hotel one evening to find the art critic for La Justice seated at the table that he generally occupied. ‘It’s funny to be so far away and to have these meetings,’ Monet told Alice when describing this fortuitous encounter. Geffroy had come to Belle Isle to do research for a book on the anarchist Blanqui. He had had no idea that Monet had made the long voyage there as well” (P.H. Tucker, Monet in the ‘90s, The Series Paintings (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, p. 29). This meeting was not to be their last. The two got on quite well and, before he left the island, Geffroy was able to watch Monet hard at work painting his canvases, gaining first-hand knowledge of the artist’s method and practice. Their friendship would last decades and it is no accident that in 1891, when Monet first exhibited fifteen works from the Meules series at Galerie Durand-Ruel, Geffroy would write the glowing introduction in the accompanying exhibition catalogue.
Haystacks and grainstacks had appeared in Monet’s canvases before this period of focused illumination, but never proved to be the specific subject and study of his work, appearing as incidental in a larger landscape, or behind figures strolling through a lush field. In 1884 haystacks (composed of hay) sit in front of a row of poplars (Wildenstein 900-902) while in 1885 the stacks are leaned against by young figures dressed for a summer day (Wildenstein 993-95; see fig. 2) and in 1886 they form a small part of a broader and more expansive view of the surrounding countryside (Wildenstein 1073-74). It was not until two years later in 1888 that Monet began to place these grainstacks as the central motif of a composition (Wildenstein 1213-17; see fig. 3). As Daniel Wildenstein relates: “His choice of stack was favored by circumstances: a little to the west of his house, a large piece of land, the Clos Morin, served each year as a ‘floor’ for the stacks of one of Giverny’s bigger farmers. The ‘high road’ passed the north face of the Clos Morin before reaching the town hall. From this road… Monet would enter the enclosed field. These paintings [Wildenstein 1213-17] constituted a rather modest beginning and, despite the exaggerated claims occasionally heard, did not mark any real progress towards the systematic use of series. Monet’s series were not magically born of his first encounters with the grain-stacks; they were the result of many years of experience” (D. Wildenstein, Monet or the Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 1996, pp. 247-48).
In choosing these powerful grainstacks as his subject, Monet continued a long tradition of depicting the French countryside and its abundant riches seen in the paintings of such artists as Millet and the Barbizon school (see fig. 4). Monet’s fellow Impressionists, most notably Camille Pissarro, had also included imagery of haystacks in their work. As early 1873 Pissarro places a haystack front and center, its roughly triangular form breaking the horizon line and dominating the field and figures that surround it (see fig. 5). Almost twenty years later his haystacks appear smaller in size, tucked between trees and pathways near his home in Éragny. However, Monet updated and adapted this tradition to striking effect: his grainstacks series contain virtually no anecdotal detail; no dogs or laborers, no figures walking through the fields or birds flying in the sky. The artist pares down his vision to focus solely on the grainstacks themselves, on the play of light or night on them, on the sky and the horizon. In this reduction of motifs, Monet echoes the purity of line and form evident in Japanese colored woodblock prints by such masters as Hokusai that began to be seen in the West in the mid-nineteenth century, and also demonstrates a divergence of approach from contemporary artists such as Vincent van Gogh, who treated the same subject in Arles during 1890 with very different aims, imbuing his subject with a wealth of details that Monet chose to exclude from his painting (see fig. 6).
While van Gogh's stacks, situated by a farmhouse, portray a scene of continuing work and human interaction, Paul Gauguin portrays them mid-construction, where local women manipulate the interior of the stack while thronged by chickens (see fig. 7). This context underscores the separation from Pissarro and Millet’s imagery, showing the stacks primarily as temporary architectural constructions in the landscape.
The theme of the harvest, as an essential cyclical human activity which indicated success or failure, feast or famine and ensured the passage of time, has a storied presence in artistic imagery since ancient times. From a wall painting from the Ramesside period of ancient Egypt circa 13th-11th centuries B.C. to an idealized image of medieval peasant life for the month of June in the Très riches heures of the Duke de Berry, executed by the Limbourg brothers in the early 1400s to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters, the growth and collection of grain is depicted as integral to human life and development and can be conflated with the rise of human civilization (see figs. 8, 9 & 10).
Though the new modern behemoth, the railroad, wended its way across France by 1890, the importance of the harvest for the countryside, town and state was still paramount. In the careful preparation, harvest and storage methods exhibited by each grainstack, the economic health of the countryside was demonstrated. A good harvest and correct farming methods ensured the prosperity of the farmer and town, and by extension the city and state. The notion of the stacks carrying the wealth of their owners finds a resonance in Monet’s depiction of their surfaces and the volumetric play of their shapes. The stacks in the present composition are broad, full structures that suggest the great fertility and bountifulness of the Normandy landscape. Their surfaces are gilded and burnished with the light of the sun, and the whole scene is infused with a sense of well-being, vitality and the harmony of nature.
Examining the series as a whole, overall compositional devices can be noted. Paul Hays Tucker describes this organization: “The compositions are all strongly geometric—the fields, hills, and sky being reduced to parallel bands that in most cases extend across the entire canvas, with the fields occupying approximately half the surface, and the hills and sky, a quarter each. When fifteen of these canvases were exhibited at Durand-Ruel’s in Paris between May 4 and May 18, 1891, their impact was as forceful as their elemental motifs and the show was an enormous success…. In moving from one canvas to another, one senses not only the many artful choices Monet made, but also his deep engagement with the stacks themselves. They are never overwhelmed by the light or obscured by the atmosphere, and thus they never lose their identity as forms. Monet even goes so far as to outline them, often in bold colors, and to define their conical tops by rivulets of light that run down their undulating edges. Although inert, the stacks seem to be invested with great feeling…” (P. H. Tucker, Monet in the ‘90s, The Series Paintings (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, pp. 77 & 82).
The present canvas breaks from the overall organization of the series in several ways. The “parallel bands” are less dominating in structure, rather the strong diagonal extending from the left edge of the canvas towards the horizon line becomes dominant. In only one other canvas is this the case (Wildenstein 1272). Monet also employs a radical cropping in Meules, which contributes to the sense of dynamism in the receding diagonal line of the stacks; this is in direct opposition to the sun, hidden behind the stacks, which casts diagonal beams of light towards the lower right corner of the composition, suffusing the edges of the stacks and the ground with reds, oranges and vibrant greens. By cutting off a portion of the largest stack at the left edge he conveys the monumentality of these monoliths and further impresses the manipulation of light in the landscape caused by their physical presence.
“The Haystacks are best understood,” writes Charles S. Moffett, “in terms of the evolution of Monet’s late work. They were the first of several series, and as such they mark the appearance of a mode that interested the artist for the rest of his career. In this connection, Geffroy makes a remark in his 1891 catalogue essay that is both insightful and prescient. He likened the haystacks in the field near Monet’s house to mirror-like ‘object passagers’ (‘transitory objects’), the primary function of which was to reflect the surrounding effects of light and atmosphere, or, in the terminology that Monet used when speaking to Byvanck… ‘These haystacks, in an empty field, are mirror-like objects in a kind of open thoroughfare where environmental influences, atmospheric effects, puffs of breeze, and short-lived light effects manifest themselves’” (C. S. Moffett, “Monet’s Haystacks” in J. Rewald & F. Weitzenhoffer, eds., Aspects of Monet, a symposium on the artist’s life and times, New York, 1984, p. 155).
The essential trouble with capturing a fleeting effect and memorializing it on canvas was not, by 1890, a new concept. Monet, however, wanted, as ever, to push the boundaries of what this meant and how to depict it. “Monet was focusing on what was in a sense the most transitory of all subjects,” states John House, “and the one most suited to the rapid sketch—the atmosphere itself, the ever-changing envelope which gave color and life to inert objects. As Geffroy reported in his ‘Salon de 1890’, using a phrase which Monet repeated in later interviews, Monet ‘does not want to represent the reality of things, he wants to record the light which lies between him and the objects.’ The key to Monet’s later works lies in this paradox and in ways in which he resolved it: he was seeking a way of translating nature’s most fleeting effects into fully realized, complete works of art. No longer could the impression be an end in itself; the work of art had to transcend the initial experience and yet still retain a sense of the immediacy of the experience, of ‘l’instantanéite’” (J. House, “Monet in 1890” in ibid., p. 133).
How was Monet to accomplish immediacy? A close examination of the surface of Meules betrays the concept, and the rather romantic idea, of Monet completing all of his work en plein air. While much of the initial work was done in the fields, examining light, perspective, and various ephemeral effects, the staggering complexity of pigment application, color and light in Meules speaks to close and time-consuming work in the artist’s studio following his initial sessions out of doors. As John House describes: “In the Meules, the surfaces, though dense, are generally less insistent; the effect of the instantaneity of the envelope is recreated in elaboration of the final stages of the execution of the paintings, when soft yet animated touches of endlessly varied color were added over less variegated paint layers. Paradoxically, then, the instantaneity of the initial effect could only be finally realized in paint at the end of a protracted period of reworking, and given the transistoriness of the subject, this can only have been achieved in the studio. So, in one sense the initial effect was recreated as the painting was worked up, but in another sense the elaboration and resolution of the painting itself transcended the momentariness of its initial stimulus. The ‘more serious qualities’ which Monet sought in these paintings emerge as the viewer contemplates them at his leisure. Their starting point may have been an instant of vision, but the pictures can in no way be apprehended in an instant…. Looking at the picture is now an experience absolutely different from, and divorced from, the experience of looking at nature itself” (ibid., pp. 134-35).
Fifteen of Monet’s Meules were exhibited for the first time in May of 1891 at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris. Several other works accompanied the exhibition, but the attention of the public was captured by the grainstacks. It is impossible to know each of the fifteen paintings from the series which were included as the catalogue descriptions are imprecise and no photographs were taken of the exhibition—much to the dismay of later scholars. The exhibition would prove to be a success in sales and in prestige. Many of the art critics of the day wrote praise-laden reviews and Pissarro, not usually taken with Monet’s work, wrote privately to his son that, despite his misgivings, it “was the work of a very great artist.” The famed critic Felix Fénéon, who had coined the term “Neo-Impressionist” some four years earlier, wrote in rhapsodic prose: “When did Monet’s colors ever come together in more harmonious clamor, with more sparkling impetus? It was the evening sun that most exalted Grainstacks: in summer they were haloed in purple flakes of ire; in winter, their phosphorescent shadows rippled in the sun, and, a sudden frost enameling them blue, they glittered on a sky first pink, then gold” (F. Fénéon quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet or the Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 1996, pp. 279-80).
One visitor of note to the 1891 exhibition was Bertha Honoré Palmer, the wife of the fabulously wealthy Chicago-based businessman Potter Palmer. “Bertha Honoré Palmer saw the 1891 exhibition and, perhaps as a result of that experience, became the most important 19th-century collector of Impressionist landscape painting outside France, as well as the first collector to grasp the importance of Monet’s series paintings” (R.R. Brettell, “Monet’s Haystacks Reconsidered” in Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. II, no. 1, Chicago, Autumn 1984, p. 6). Mrs. Potter Palmer collected voraciously, owning, at one time, as many as ninety works by Monet. “Without doubt,” writes Richard Brettell, “she was the first private collector to recognize the significance of Monet’s serial paintings. In fact, her collection of these works to this day rank as the most important assembled by a private collector or an institution. In addition to her nine Haystacks, she owned four of the Poplars, three of the Rouen Cathedral, and three of the series devoted to morning on the Seine” (ibid., p. 19; see fig. 11).
Mrs. Palmer was a force to be reckoned with (see fig. 12). “During her lifetime, Mrs. Palmer was called ‘the queen of Chicago’…. Married to the great hotel and retail magnate Potter Palmer, she bore him two sons, built a famous ‘castle,’ presided over the largest private collection of works of art in Chicago, and was named president of the Board of Lady Managers for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. By 1890, she had become preeminent in Chicago and was also well known in New York, Newport, London, and Paris. Hers was a rich, intense life, full of politics, intrigue, and sheer power; if there was a woman who dominated the generation of American robber barons, it was Mrs. Palmer” (ibid., pp. 15 & 18). After her husband’s death she purchased and developed large swaths of real estate in Florida, vastly increasing the enormous fortune that had been left to her by her husband when he predeceased her in 1903. Potter Palmer’s decision to leave his entire fortune to his wife was met with raised eyebrows. His lawyer advised him against it stating: “'Your wife is a young woman, she might very well marry again.' Whereupon Potter Palmer responded, 'If she does, he’ll need the money.' When his old friend Marshall Field heard that Palmer had left his entire estate to his wife, Field’s response was typical of his frugal personality: 'A million dollars is enough for any woman!'…. Mrs. Palmer became an excellent business woman, and by her death in 1918, she had more than doubled her husband’s estate” (S.S. Kalmbach, The Jewel of the Gold Coast, Mrs. Potter Palmer’s Chicago, Chicago, 2009, p. 21). Her shrewdness in business did not just apply to her handling of a more-than-substantial real estate portfolio; over the years she also bought and sold artworks at an enormous rate, often holding on to works for just a few years and making a profit on their sale. Many of her paintings by Claude Monet would be held in the collection only temporarily. Meules was different however. She first acquired it in 1892, just two years after it was painted. In short order she sold the work back to Durand-Ruel, but soon thought better of the decision and re-purchased it by November of that same year. The work would not leave her collection again and remained with her for her lifetime. After her death, a portion of the collection was donated to the Art Institute of Chicago, including two works from the grainstack series. Meules however remained within the Palmer family, becoming a part of her son and daughter-in-law, Honoré & Grace Palmer’s, collection after her death.
In its warmth and generosity of vision, in its elevation of the humble grainstack to an icon of Impressionism and in its emphasis on form and light over content and the burden of detail, Meules is truly the masterpiece from Monet’s series of grainstacks.
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