Painted in high summer of 1885, La Prairie fleurie was executed during a period when the astoundingly rich and diverse landscape surrounding Monet’s new home became his primary motif. Having initially moved his large family—his two sons Jean and Michel, along with Alice Hoschedé and her six children—to the rural hamlet of Giverny in the spring of 1883, the artist found a renewing retreat where he could dedicate himself to his explorations of the natural world. Instantly captivated by the landscapes of Giverny, Monet wrote to Durand-Ruel in Paris within days of his arrival: “Once settled, I hope to produce masterpieces because I like the countryside very much” (quoted in Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism (exhibition catalogue), New York & St. Louis, 1978, pp. 15-16). Located some forty miles from Paris and virtually untouched by the rapacious modernization that had radically altered many of the villages along the Seine, Monet found endless inspiration in the hills overlooking Giverny’s village, the roads and field near his home, along the banks of the Seine and ultimately amidst the vast landscaping project in his extensive flower gardens. Each location would become the subject of his best-known series paintings of the 1890s—Les Meules à Giverny, Les Peupliers, Matinée sur la Seine and Nymphéas.
Giverny rests against the hills on the east bank of the Seine, where the valley broadens and offers extraordinary vistas of the sprawling rural landscape. In the idyllic rural compositions Monet offer a vision of pastoral contentment; the fecundity of France and its vibrant seasons are benevolently portrayed in the Impressionist style. However, they also present a contrast to the more spectacular and unusual sights that Monet strove to paint further abroad. Paul Hayes Tucker has speculated that by traveling throughout France in the 1880s Monet was attempting to decentralize Impressionism which for the most part had been based in Paris. “When queried in 1880 about his defection [from the Impressionists], he asserted, 'I am still an Impressionist and will always remain one.' Unlike some of his former colleagues such as Pissarro who experimented with the pointillist techniques of the Post-Impressionists, Monet staunchly maintained that belief. Indeed, he put it into practice in an unprecedented way, traveling extensively during the decade to paint some of the most spectacular and varied sites in all of France, from the black, ocean-pounded coast of Belle Isle in the Atlantic south of Brittany to the verdant shores of Antibes on the Mediterranean. The places he chose had dramatically different geological formations, weather conditions, lighting effects, and temperature ranges. They also possessed strikingly different moods, mythologies, associations, and appeals” (P.H. Tucker, Monet in the '90s. The Series Paintings, New Haven & London, 1989, pp. 18-19).
While Monet’s sojourns abroad provided the artist with a variety of novel motifs to explore, his home at Giverny remained in his mind: “If I am happy to work in this beautiful area,” he wrote to Alice Hoschedé, painting the distant French coast, “my heart is always in Giverny” (quoted in P.H. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New York, 1995, p. 119). With their exquisitely nuanced descriptions of light and the countryside, the paintings from the fields surrounding Giverny dynamically re-assert the vitality of Impressionism during the time when many of the movement’s other pioneers were abandoning the core ideals of the Impressionistic style and the movement was facing a numerous challenges. In the later years of the 1880s, whether he was entrenched at Giverny or traveling throughout France in search of new vistas, Monet was dedicated to ensuring Impressionism maintained its position as the leading style of the late nineteenth-century avant-garde. “What Monet seems to be asserting in all of these paintings…” Paul Hayes Tucker writes, “is Impressionism’s superior capacity to exploit color, describe particular climatic conditions, use paint in novel ways, and reveal fundamental truths about art and the world” (ibid., pp. 23 & 25).
The vast expanse of the meadows and fields near Le Pressoir, Monet’s house on the outskirts of Giverny, became the focus of much of his output while at home. In these paintings Monet puts forth a very specific vision of France, tied to the long-standing notion that the strength of the country lay in the rich lands celebrated in the agrarian traditions and over-all vigor of rural France (see figs. 1 & 2). This area, nestled between the two branches of the river Epte, a tributary of the Seine, became a favorite painting spot and recurs throughout his work of the following decade, most notably in the Meules and Peupliers series. Writing about Monet's paintings executed in 1890, Paul Hayes Tucker observed that "he concentrated primarily on subjects round his Giverny estate that suggested the bounties of the soil and the poetry of rural light. The largest number of pictures he produced were more than a dozen views of flowing fields of hay, oats, and poppies... all of which are filled with the freshness of the day" (ibid., p. 139).
Toward the end of the nineteenth century many depictions of the agrarian vistas of France contained images of laborers, particularly those participating in agricultural pursuits like hay-making, a reassuring confirmation of the vitality of the nation and a representation of the utopian vision of the countryside. While these scenes of labor appealed to many in the Barbizon school, as well as a number of Impressionist painters, such as Pissarro, Monet’s landscapes are void of rural workers; toil is entirely absent from his paintings of Giverny. When the rare figure appears within his landscapes, as in the present work, they are often identifiable members of his bourgeois family shown within the ideal pastoral setting, in pursuit of leisure.
La Prairie fleurie provides a panoramic view of the fields with two diminutive figures that seem to meld into the landscape itself. Likely depicting a pair of the Hoschedé children wandering through the meadow, the lush field of grass has reached its full summer height, the tall stalks mere weeks away from the annual harvest. In capturing the richness of the meadow there is a distinct sense of spontaneity and rapidity in Monet’s technique, wherein he has liberated his brushwork and use of color to the degree that the individual strokes dissolved into a mosaic of abstraction; the richly variegated greens, yellow and highlights of pinks, are expertly woven together to capture a sense of movement among the wavering fronds of grass that covers the field. The lithe poplar trees which fill the background—presaging the Peupliers series of 1891—are executed with loose strokes that reinforce the impressions of a strong breeze that moves through the valley, causing the trees to bow and the grass to dance. In contrast with the later Peupliers series in which the tall, elongated trees occupy the entire height of the canvas, in the present work the artist paid equal attention to the broad, vibrant expanse of the field that fills the lower register of the composition, a feature typical of the local landscape that he so admired (see fig. 3).
A degree of abstraction that is only achievable in the landscape genre afforded Monet the opportunity to showcase his bold painterly style, living within the delicate balance of representation and abstraction as the means to evoke the presence of atmosphere and light, within the dynamic movement of Impressionism. Monet produced an astonishingly varied and opulent group of works that celebrate the natural charms of the Giverny landscape. Capturing the allure of the changing atmosphere through the various seasons, times of day and weather conditions, as well as the play of light.
In devoting himself to painting en plein air in the pastoral countryside, Monet would take to the outdoors to capture a plethora of picturesque vistas. In the summer of 1885, when La Prairie fleurie was completed, Monet was immortalized in the work of American painter John Singer Sargent (see fig. 4). Through the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, Monet and Sargent met in 1876, and after a series of group exhibitions in the early 1880s and regular correspondence the two artists developed a burgeoning friendship and respectful admiration. An early, devoted follower of Monet, Sargent made the trip to visit Monet at his home at Giverny in 1885, accompanying the artist on a painting expedition to the surrounding countryside. Monet’s devotion to painting en plein air inspired Sargent to capture the French artist seated at his easel relishing in the landscape before him, recording the field on canvas—identified by scholar as Pré à Giverny in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Rendered with fluid, rapid brushstrokes, imitating the methods of Monet himself, Sargent captures Monet in his element—at work, completely absorbed in the scene, intent on capturing a vibrant vision of the Giverny landscape.
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