The idyllic agrarian subject matter of Prairie, ciel nuageux encapsulates the central focus of Monet’s oeuvre towards the end of the nineteenth century; he divorced himself from painting urban scenes and the banlieue of Paris and devoted himself fully to his beloved countryside, with its majestic avenues of poplar trees, canals and wheat fields. By 1890, Monet had become financially successful enough to buy the house and a large garden at Giverny, which he had rented since 1883. Painted in the plain of Les Essarts, Prairie, ciel nuageux depicts the green expanses not far from the artist's home in Giverny (see fig. 1). This region would provide the most significant source of inspiration in the artist's oeuvre, including Monet's celebrated garden, as well as its surrounding hills and the banks of the river Seine.
Discussing the artist’s daily routine at his home Claire Joyes writes: “The landscape at Giverny fascinated him. He spent a long while exploring, walking over hills and through valleys, in marshes and meadows, among streams and poplars. Or, drifting down the quiet river in his boat he would watch with a hunter’s concentration for the precise moment when light shimmered on grass or on silver willow leaves or on the surface of the water. Suddenly or by degrees his motif would be revealed to him” (C. Joyes, Monet at Giverny, London, 1975, p. 20). Once settled on a subject Monet would rise early, breakfast lavishly and set out across the fields with his canvases and painting paraphernalia in a wheelbarrow, often accompanied by an "assistant" in form of his step-daughter and aspiring painter Blanche Hoschedé. Progress was only interrupted by lunch—taken punctiliously at twelve o’clock—or a drastic change in weather. Monet was devoted to painting en plein air and the brilliant acuity of his observations of light and shade drawn directly from nature, was matched only by the sublime harmony of his compositions. Gustave Geffroy, who became well-acquainted with the artist in the 1880s, wrote about Monet’s working methods: “All haste as he fills the canvas with the dominant tones, he then studies their graduations and contrast and harmonizes them. From this comes the painting’s unity… Observe… all these different states of nature… and you will see the mornings rise before you, afternoons grow radiant, and the darkness of evening descend” (quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet or The Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 2003, p. 234).
Monet delighted in finding new motifs and painterly devices to employ. The dramatic contrast between the rugged, harsh beauties of the Belle-Île and effervescent sweetness of Antibes represent the breadth of Monet’s interpretive talents in the late 1880s. However, it was during the well-earned respite at Giverny that he sought more subtle and exacting natural phenomena to paint. So familiar to him was the land surrounding his home, that even the most common-place motifs were used to experiment on the fundamentals of painting, as John House has explained: “The simple formal structure of the subject becomes just an armature for the elaboration of the surface; by inflexions of brushworks and graduations of color Monet could define the space and articulate the surface while bypassing composition in its traditional sense” (J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven & London, 1986, p. 54). The freedom of Giverny’s landscape elicited some of Monet’s most accomplished works.
In Prairie, ciel nuageux the composition is divided into three segments: the flowery field in the foreground, the burgeoning trees at center and the lively sky overhead. Monet evidently took great joy in depicting this colorful vista, painting the same view in three additional compositions, immortalizing the most ephemeral and exquisite qualities of light, and capturing a dynamic sense of movement in the cloud-filled sky and swaying trees.
As Paul Hayes Tucker observes about the works from this series, "The fact that these paintings depict rich and fertile fields is unusual. The fields surrounding Monet's property had frequently been the focus of his attention when he had worked in Giverny, but most often he had painted them either before any crops had begun to grow or after they had been harvested. And he usually had included members of his family, as if he needed to personalize the sites during his early years in the farming community [see fig. 2]. That Monet would focus on much narrower agrarian subjects in 1890 is significant, for he painted those fields far less frequently during the 1880s—in fact, no more than a dozen times. When he did, he used compositional strategies that he would employ in 1890 as well. He also tended to paint views of haystacks at the same time, just as he would focus on grainstacks in the next decade. Thus when Monet returned to these subjects in 1890, he was consciously reacquainting himself not only with Giverny's sheer beauty but also with its fundamental agrarian character" (P. Hayes Tucker, Monet in the '90s, The Series Paintings (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, pp. 76-77).
Writing about the four works depicting this view-point, Daniel Wildenstein observed: "The trees shown in this picture, as in all the other pictures painted by Monet, have long since disappeared. The hill on the right is the one which slopes down from Giverny towards Vernonnet. Given this orientation, we can deduce that this is a morning effect, painted in the flowery meadows of Les Essarts; the first haystacks can be seen in the distance" (D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, p. 475). Indeed, the image of haystacks or grainstacks would become a recurring motif emerging in Monet's painting from early 1890.
Several times in the mid-1880s, as early as 1884, Monet had painted meules or haystacks, depicting stacks that were subsumed into a wider environment, rather than using them as the prime subject of the painting. In the present work the artist has widened the scope of his composition, showing one or two isolated stacks at a distance, towards the center against the backdrop of a lush landscape. While discreetly painted within Prairie, ciel nuageux, stacks of grain would become the primary subject of one of Monet's best known series which he began working on in earnest sometime in the late summer or early autumn of 1890, continuing to paint the stacks throughout that winter. Prairie, ciel nuageux can be considered the immediate precursor to the major series of majestic canvases depicting grainstacks and the evanescent effects of light on them.
According to Paul Hayes Tucker, "Monet was to earn [his] reputation, initially at least, on the basis of his Grainstack pictures, which were likely begun in late August or early September 1890, when agrarian manuals of the time indicate local farmers would have begun cutting their fields and constructing their stacks. Just prior to this undertaking, probably sometime in late July, he started a series of pictures that depict the fields of hay, oats, and poppies around his Giverny house. While reduced in visual incident and rather simplistic compositionally, they are rigorously painted, suggesting that Monet had become more concerned with overall atmospheric effects, as he told Geffroy that summer, but also with emphasizing the decorative, tapestrylike qualities that painting can achieve" (P. Hayes Tucker, Monet in the '90s, The Series Paintings (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, pp. 75-76). Belonging to the group of works executed immediately prior to the grainstacks series, Prairie, ciel nuageux marks a subtle yet important turning point in Monet's style, as well as the emergence of an idea that was to dominate that artist's production over the ensuing year—the series paintings (see fig. 3).
By the time the present work was painted Monet was already exploring the concept of a succession of paintings covering a single motif. Among the most celebrated works of Impressionist art, Monet’s series paintings are often considered the finest compositions of the artist's oeuvre. Technically defined as variations of the same motif, usually vistas of a particular landscape, these pictures examine the subtle nuances of light and shadow, and evidence Monet's fascination with exploring the ever-changing nature of a given setting. The artist began experimenting with this pictorial treatment as early as the 1870s and 1880s, rendering a series of canvases of a persistent subject and altering the time of day and perspective of each one. As a group the paintings within a given series, that could contain only a pair or trio of works as in the case of the present work, were remarkably varied in composition and treatment. In light of the grainstacks series to come and its significance to Monet’s oeuvre, the significance of Prairie, ciel nuageux is undisputable, for it represents one of the artist's most renowned and recognized ideas or the verge of its full realization.
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