A meditation in sky and water, trees and shrubs, reflection and suspension, Matinée sur la Seine embodies the purest aspect of Claude Monet’s dedication to light, nature and atmosphere. The tranquility of the scene – the sublime – suspends the composition from the trials and tribulations of contemporary French politics while looking forward to Modern art and the absolute abstraction of the twentieth century.
During the summer and early fall of 1896 and 1897, Monet rose at 3:30 each morning, well before dawn. Already installed in his house and growing gardens in Giverny, he would equip himself with dew-resistant clothing and head across the road and fields towards the confluence of the river Epte and the Seine. Rowing just a short distance from the shore, he would board his Bateau-atelier and set off downstream to a calm bend in the river. Each morning, weather permitting, he would work on numerous canvases as the sun rose, capturing the effects of the lightening sky and clarifying reflections and contrasts between the water, woods and clouds. An assistant from his garden would join him on these trips, maneuvering and organizing the canvases for the artist as the dawn progressed. The details of his daily sojourns were captured by the journalist Maurice Guillemot, who provided an animated account of the artists quotidian life at Giverny in the last years of the nineteenth century.
Some months before a portion of his Matinée sur la Seine series was exhibited at Galerie Georges Petit in 1898, Monet invited Guillemot to observe his working process. In the ensuing article published in La Revue illustrée on March 15, 1898, Guillemot details his visit: “The crack of dawn, in August, 3:30 AM. His torso snug in a white woolen hand-knit, his feet in a pair of sturdy hunting boots with thick, dew-proof soles, his head covered by a picturesque battered brown felt hat with the brim turned down to keep off the sun, a cigarette in his mouth—a spot of brilliant fire in his great, bushy beard—he pushed open the door, walks down the steps, follows the central path through his garden, where his flowers awaken and unfold as day breaks, crosses the road (at this hour deserted), slips through the picket fence beside the railroad track leading from Gisors, skirts the pond mottled with water lilies, steps over the brook lapping against the willows, plunges into the mist-dimmed meadows, and comes to the river. There he unties his rowboat moored in the reeds along the bank, and with a few strokes, reaches the large punt at anchor which serves as his studio. The local man, a gardener’s helper, who accompanies him, unties the packages—as they call the stretched canvases joined in pairs and numbered—and the artist sets to work…. This is where the Epte River flows into the Seine, among tiny islands shaded by tall trees, where branches of the river, like peaceful, solitary lakes beneath the foliage, form mirrors of water reflecting the greenery; this is where, since last summer, Claude Monet has been working” (reproduced in C. F. Stuckey, ed., Monet. A Retrospective, New York, 1985, p. 195).
Monet painted twenty-one canvases in total of this specific morning view. Starting in the summer of 1896, over thirty days of rain in a two-month period halted the artist’s progress. While the present work and three others bear the date of 1896, the majority of this series would not be completed until the following year. The 1890s have come to be known as the decade when Monet focused intently on series of works, each with its own nearly identical subjects. Starting in 1890-91 with the grainstacks (colloquially called “Haystacks”) with their heavy impasto and lavishly worked surfaces, Monet found a vehicle to express his views on the meaning of landscape: “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but its surroundings bring it to life – the air and the light, which vary continually… For me it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives objects their real value” (quoted in J. House, Nature into Art, New Haven & London, 1986, pp. 28-29). From the series of grainstacks, Monet would move to the s-shaped curve of poplars lining the river Epte—trees he went to great lengths to preserve from felling by the town—to the luminous architecture of the Rouen Cathedral, the delicate renderings of ice flowing, forming and melting on the Seine, the eternally gray-shrouded Mount Kolsaas in Norway and the more sun-filled cliffs in Normandy to his bracingly early Mornings on the Seine and, finally, imagery of his carefully constructed Japanese bridge in his Giverny gardens—the 1890s is seen as a watershed moment in both Monet’s oeuvre and that of modern and contemporary artists in the twentieth century.
Writing about the groundbreaking quality and importance of these 1890s series paintings, Paul Hayes Tucker states “…his enthusiasm for his work surely rested on the fact that he was developing something entirely new. For no other painter up until then had ever conceived of painting a large number of pictures that concentrated on the same subject and that would be differentiated only by formal factors—color, touch, and composition—as well as by different lighting and weather conditions” (P. H. Tucker, Claude Monet, Life and Art, New Haven & London, 1995, p. 139). The Matinée sur la Seine series goes even a step farther than his other groupings from this decade: “Mornings on the Seine… are testimony to his powers of control and his attention to the slightest nuances of nature. Unlike any previous series, these pictures were actually painted in a chronological fashion so that one canvas is intended to follow its predecessor, thus leading the viewer through the progressive moments of dawn’s early light. As such, they reveal Monet’s ability to track and capture quite specific effects more literally than ever before, just as they demonstrate his desire to bend painting’s means to honor nature’s intricacies in even more poetic ways” (ibid., p. 159).
Monet’s importance to artists whose work would come to be viewed as entirely abstract was apparent in the decades after his death. Paloma Alarcó explores the reaction of the Bauhaus artist Wassily Kandinsky and the Suprematist artist Kasimir Malevitch: “Monet developed a type of painting dominated by repetitive subject matter and a loose, fluid technique that filled the entire surface of the canvas, turning it into a world unto itself, one that was almost abstract. It was a very short path that led from capturing that personal perception of the world in a painted image to the self-sufficiency of forms and colors. Monet would inevitably come to be viewed as an abstract artist. Kandinsky was one of the first artists to interpret Monet as an abstract painter and remarked that seeing one painting from Monet’s haystack series… had opened his eyes to abstraction: ‘Suddenly, for the first time, I saw a picture. That is was a haystack, the catalogue informed me, I didn’t recognize it. I found this non-recognition painful, and thought that the painter had no right to paint so indistinctly. I had a dull feeling that the object was lacking in this picture. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably upon my memory, always hovering quite unexpectedly before my eyes, down to the last detail.’ Another Russian avant-garde artist, Kazimir Malevich, recalled an experience very similar to Kandinsky’s, in his case the epiphany occurred before one of Monet’s images of Rouen Cathedral, which Malevich had discovered in the Shchukin collection: ‘In fact, all of Monet’s efforts had gone into the walls of the cathedral. His main task was not the shadows and the light but the painting that lay in the shadow and the light’” (Monet et l’abstraction (exhibition catalogue), Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, 2010, p. 15). In the 1950s, Clement Greenberg, the noted art critic and primary supporter of Jackson Pollack and the Abstract Expressionists, credited Monet with advancing painting to its furthest point, regardless of the cubism of Pablo Picasso and George Braque.
Several of the Abstract Expressionists looked toward Monet’s work for its use and application not only of medium but also of color—both in some of his last works' excesses and in the meditative quality of his 1890s compositions. “The manner in which Monet transformed the rhythms of nature into an expression of his own inner feelings anticipates the chromatic abstractions of later artists like Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb…. Both Rothko and Gottlieb created works of expansive luminosity that express universal emotions. Rothko’s large-format color field canvases with their open, vibrant rectangular forms which, bearing no relationship to geometry, appear to float in an indeterminate space, can be linked to certain aspects of the Impressionists’ treatment of light, especially Monet’s. Like Monet, Rothko concentrated on achieving visual contrasts by means of the application of color in successive thin glazes as if it were watercolor, not oil, diminishing the texture of the painting to its minimum expression, to make it evident that the light source emerges from the paint itself” (ibid., pp. 31 & 33). Advising Lila Cabot Perry, an American who spent her summers painting in Giverny and who visited frequently with Monet, the artist stated: “When you go out to paint try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your naive impression of the scene before you” (quoted in J. Rewald & F. Weitzenhoffer, eds., Aspects of Monet, a symposium on the artist’s life and times, New York, 1984, p. 109).
The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen a number of established master painters return to the landscape, from David Hockney whose canvases of the Woldgate woods, lanes and fields have dominated much of his production in the past two decades to Gerhard Richter’s 1990s landscapes painted from his own photographs, like that of Sommertag, which evokes the sfumato-like effects of Monet’s Matinée sur la Seine. During a 1973 interview, when asked “Why do most of your paintings look like blurry photographs?” Richter answered “I've never found anything to be lacking in a blurry canvas. Quite the contrary: you can see many more things in it than in a sharply focused image. A landscape painted with exactness forces you to see a determined number of clearly differentiated trees, while in a blurry canvas you can perceive as many trees as you want. The painting is more open” (D. Elger & H. Ulrich, eds., Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London, 2009, p. 81).
In the twentieth century Monet would further develop his garden at Giverny, pouring over horticulture books and botanical periodicals – amassing a library on the subject in multiple languages, and turning to the various sections of his garden, plants and seasons as constant inspiration for his paintings in his final decades. His paint handling became looser, his colors ever more saturated and brighter. The last years of his life he dedicated to his large-scale compositions of water lilies, which he donated to the French state in 1922. Installed in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, near his beloved river Seine, the twenty-two panels, combined in such a way as to create eight large-scale images, are housed in a pair of oval shaped rooms, lit from above with diffuse natural light.
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