Monet Across Three Decades: From Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre in the Garden to Meadows at Giverny

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Monet – Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre in the Garden (1866)

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Monet – Corner of the Garden at Montgeron (1876)

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Monet – Pond at Montgeron (1876)

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Monet – Meadows at Giverny (1888)

The exhibition Impressionism: Sensation and Inspiration at the Hermitage Amsterdam – contextualising Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas and Sisley by juxtaposing them with their 19th Century forebears, contemporary Salon artists, intermediaries and successors; and which I mentioned in a previous piece on Cézanne’s Banks of the Marne – ended last weekend. I visited on Sunday and looked in particular at four canvases by Claude Monet, placed consecutively but at some distance apart in the largest of the exhibition’s rooms, showing Monet’s art across three decades of his career.

Together they demonstrate the way in which Monet’s work moved through and beyond Impressionism. Often considered the arch Impressionist, typifying the movement’s emphases on painting en plein air, and using vivid colours to display the transitory effects of sunlight, Monet’s art should not be reduced and perceived only as a mirror of the movement. The four paintings show different approaches to composition, and Monet achieving Impressionistic results then extending his art in the direction of pure subjectivity, tending towards abstraction. They show too that a vastly diminished palette can produce something which more closely depicts the way we see, and which abounds more fully in light.

The earliest painting on display, Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre in the Garden (also known as Woman in the Garden, Sainte-Adresse), was completed in 1866, when Monet was just twenty-six years old. It appears the most composed, the most ordered of the four paintings; and well demonstrates Monet’s predilection for painting ordered nature, in the form of gardens and enclosed scenes. Three principal objects – Jeanne-Marguerite; the central white tree, in bloom, with red flowers underneath; and the yellower tree to the right – and their shadows, at equal distance from one another, structure the space. The vibrant reds of the flower bed complement the greenery, and throw the woman’s white, sun-lit dress into relief. There is a visual progression also from the vivid white of the dress through the blooming central tree, to the smaller trees and flowers which enclose the scene at the far right.

Monet would later depict shadows comprised of shades of blue, even in paintings of the summer. His experimentation with blue shadows was one of the things which led critics of his work in Paris in the 1870s to call his works ‘leprous’. In Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre in the Garden the shadows are dark and solid, and the use of blue delimited to the sky in the upper right corner of the painting. The effect suggests a warm and still summer day. Yet the stillness of the sky, a block of blue more steely than azure; the solidity of the shadows and the other darker tones in the painting; its order; and the relative flatness of the canvas, of the brushstrokes in the grass and in the trees in the background – all this gives a sense of something staged and static. The light which illuminates the woman’s umbrella is not as luminous upon and does not pick out in the same way the trees to the picture’s centre and right. The overall atmosphere becomes somewhat unsettling, an image approximating that of the geometrically defined garden which features, intercut, in the film Last Year at Marienbad.

With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, Monet spent eight months in England, then four in the Netherlands before returning to France. The painters he was able to study during this time – notably Turner and Constable – significantly influenced the specifics of his art. In 1876 he completed a series of four canvases commissioned by Ernest Hoschedé, a wealthy department store magnate, and intended to furnish the drawing room of his château at Montgeron, on the outskirts to the south-east of Paris. The two paintings Corner of the Garden at Montgeron and Pond at Montgeron are more Impressionistic in their quicker, looser brushstrokes: the former lifted by a vivid and lively cyan-blue sky atop distant hills; the latter capturing a woman who leans on the trunk of a tree whilst she fishes, the sunlight breaking through the trees in a flurry of light-blue horizontals reflecting off the pond’s water. The two paintings depict a wilder, obviously much more expansive garden, and Monet’s handling of light is more consistent.

Still, there is something potentially problematic inherent in Monet’s methodological imperative. His insistence on painting in nature, attempting to capture the essence of its fleeting moments, encourages the quick application of unmixed colour – and the result can sometimes be slightly jarring, lacking in subtlety, the colours not quite coming together. The use of a limited palette is a logical and practical extension of Monet’s devotion towards painting en plein air.

Meadows at Giverny was painted twelve years after the Montgeron canvases, in 1888. Through the course of those twelve years, Monet lost his wife. Camille – who frequently modelled for Monet as well as Manet and Renoir, and with whom Monet had two children – died of illness in 1879. In 1883, Monet discovered Giverny, a commune on the right bank of the Seine in northern France. He rented a house there and moved with his family, which now comprised not only his children, but also Alice Hoschedé and hers: the two families had lived together briefly before Camille died and before Ernest moved to Belgium in the late 70s; and Monet and Alice would marry in 1892 after Ernest’s death. By 1888 Monet was emerging from the poverty he and his family had suffered through the late 60s and 70s, with Paul Durand-Ruel selling more and more of his works. He was able to buy his house at Giverny, plus additional land, in 1890, and would live there until his own death in 1926.

In Meadows at Giverny there are four predominant colours – two greens, an ochre and a lilac-grey. With the minor addition of a few strokes of pink and blue – the blue a variation, a darker tone of the lilac-grey, used in the shadows – these colours alone comprise the painting. This canvas as well as any suggests Cézanne description of Monet’s talent: ‘Nothing but an eye, but, my God, what an eye’. The brushstrokes are short and close and criss-cross in the foreground, and are more sweeping in the sky; the paint is laid thickly, producing an awareness of fluid shape and texture. The colours interplay harmoniously, the atmosphere is airy; the painting stands as a pure evocation of light.