In his serial paintings of poplars, Monet extended a process that he had started three years earlier in his canvases from Belle-Isle, Antibes and Juan-les-Pins. Concentrating on juxtapositions of trees and water as he had in his studies of pine trees on the Riviera, Monet turned to a similar subject much closer to home, finding an evocative motif in the rows of poplars along the Epte river, just two kilometers south of his house at Giverny. This time his undertaking was more extensive and his method more systematic as he extracted variation upon variation from the same motif.
Monet began this group of paintings in the spring of 1891, completing twenty-four pictures by the end of the year. The trees he depicted stood along the banks of the Epte in the nearby village of Limetz. The artist's commitment to this subject was evident from an early point in the project. Not long after Monet had begun to paint the poplars, the town of Limetz announced that the trees were to be auctioned on 2 August. They had been planted on communal land as a cash crop, and by June they had reached an appropriate height for harvest. In a letter of 28 July, close to the date of the intended sale, Monet lamented that there remained "quantities of new canvases I must finish". In crafty desperation, he conspired to purchase the trees with a local wood merchant who promised to leave them standing for several months. Successful in his bidding, Monet was able to continue his work. His letters through October document the progression of his series and convey both his frustrations and his growing attachments, where he complains that "this appalling weather which makes me despair for my trees" (both letters quoted in J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 210).
Monet's commitment to painting en plein air is well-known, and was often reinforced during his lifetime by his repeated denial of keeping an indoor studio, "My studio! But I have never had a studio!" (quoted in House, bid., p. 147). However, it is unlikely that Monet completed these canvases out of doors. As Richard Thomson has explained, "[When Monet started the series] . . . he had a clear idea of how he would execute and display the paintings. Although he would have begun by blocking out each motif en plein air, selecting the atmospheric conditions, fixing the composition, each canvas would be developed in the studio. There he would build up the complex layers that encrust the surface of these gorgeous paintings and ensure that the pictures harmonized with each other. In that way when they were shown together in a single room they would work as a series not only because of a common subject but also due to a degree of coordination in their coloring" (R. Thomson, Monet to Matisse: Landscape Painting in France, 1874 to 1914, Edinburgh, 1994, p. 144).
Monet's Peupliers series show two primary compositions: one with a zig-zagging perspective (fig. 1); the other with a dominant grid of trees in the foreground (fig. 2). The present painting combines these two arrangements. The extremely low horizon line creates clear emphasis on the ascent of trees in the foreground, which almost covers the vertical expanse of the canvas. Monet heighten the contrast of colors between the trees in the foreground and those in the background emphasizing this graceful line of trees curving into the distance. Yet, Monet's technique in this work draws more attention to surface than to depth. The combination of cool colors in the foreground with warmer tones in the background neutralizes the relative distances among forms just as the energetic brushwork again reinforces the painting's forcefully tactile and richly-worked surface.
These canvases are often thought to exemplify the artist's decorative impulse, an approach which Cézanne summarized as Monet's intention of "replacing modelling by the study of colors" (quoted in House, op. cit., p. 115). More recently, Paul Tucker has echoed this explanation, claiming that "Monet clearly was encouraging his viewer to indulge in the aesthetic delights of the paintings, to immerse themselves, in the end, in the paintings' decorative powers" (P.H. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 148). Again, Richard Thomson has claimed, "The paintings of course show the artist's skill in portraying weather effects, but also his craft as a pictorial organizer. Monet stresses the repetition of the vertical poplars, their trimmed trunks acting like a colonnade in the fictive architecture of his paintings. And even when he focuses on trees close to the picture place, in some cases placing them, the bank, and their reflections almost like a grid near the surface. Monet never fails to show the line of poplars snaking into recession along the line of the Epte. So for all the apparent naturalism of his effects, he artfully employs repetition and the arabesque, two defining features of the decorative. For both collectively and integrally the Poplars function as a decorative series" (Thomson, op. cit., p. 145).
Monet's interest in the decorative was widely recognized, and his emphasis on this aspect of his Peupliers canvases is hardly coincidental. The issue was a keen concern among his contemporaries, especially the younger artists like Paul Sérusier, Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, who had begun to express their disdain for painting's traditional devotion to description and service of illusion. In addition, Monet's interest in Japanese art, which was at its height in the 1890s, may also have intensified the decorative dimensions of these works. However, in theory and in practice, Monet diverged strongly from the synthetist appeal to the decorative, entrenching his art in natural forms and selecting motifs of French heritage and history. To this end, it is unsurprising that Monet chose to concentrate so intently on poplars, a subject that was so literally and symbolically associated with the French countryside. These trees were often placed along roads or at entrances to château's; they were also planted as windshields for plowed fields or as rustic fences on rural property. Moreover, after the French Revolution, the poplar had been deemed the tree of liberty, and throughout the nineteenth century, ceremonial plantings occurred in France, especially on the one-hundredth anniversary of the Revolution in 1889.
In January of 1892, Monet delivered four of his paintings to the Galerie Boussod, Valadon & Cie. Not adverse to creating a little rivalry among dealers in Paris, he also gave seven canvases to the gallery Durand-Ruel. Between 1 March and 10 March 1892, fifteen poplars were exhibited at Durand-Ruel. Monet's decision to limit the exhibition to these pictures reinforces Thomson's assertion about the artist's conscious coordination among these images. The show was a resounding success, and the Peupliers were extraordinarily well received by collectors and critics. In a review of the exhibition, George Lecomte affirmed Monet's attachment to nature, and wrote that the artist "seems more and more to abstract the durable character of single things from complex appearances and, by a more synthetic and pre-meditated rendering, to accentuate meaning and decorative beauty" (quoted in P.H. Tucker, Monet in the '90s: The Series Paintings, New Haven, 1989, p. 143). In a letter to the artist, Octave Mirbeau was even more dramatic, describing the new paintings as "absolutely admirable, a series in which you [Monet] renew yourself . . . and . . . attain the absolute beauty of great decoration". Moreover, Mirbeau expressed the undeniable power of these images, which clearly overwhelmed him. As he explained, in front of these paintings, he felt "complete joy . . . an emotion that I cannot express, so profound [was it] that I wanted to hug you . . . Never did any artist ever render anything equal to it" (quoted in ibid., pp. 142-143).
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Les peupliers, automne, 1891.
Philadelphia Museum of Art.
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Les peupliers, été, 1891.
National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
Oil on canvas
This painting has been requested for the exhibition Monet, A Retrospective, to be held by The Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum of Art from July-September 2001.
Property from the Collection of Else Sackler
Else Sackler was the first wife of Arthur M. Sackler, the connoisseur, collector and scholar. A collector of paintings and ceramics in her own right, she also was owner of William Douglas McAdams, a pharmaceutical advertising company, and established the Else Sackler Foundation to support the arts. She was also Vice President of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation.
Arthur M. Sackler was deeply involved with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University, and was the donor of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum for Art and Archeology at Beijing University. His other art-related projects are The Sackler Wing that houses the Temple of Dendur at The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at Princeton University.
457/8 x 285/8 in. (116.7 x 72.7 cm.)
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne, 1979, vol. III, p. 148, no. 1301 (illustrated, p. 149).
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1996, vol. III, pp. 520-521, no. 1301 (illustrated, p. 520).
Dr. Georges Viau, Paris.
A. and R. Ball, New York (1960).
Else Sackler, New York (acquired from the above).
By descent from the above to the present owners.