“These stacks, in that deserted field, are transitory objects on which are reflected, as in a mirror, the influences of the environment, atmospheric conditions, sudden bursts of light. They are a fulcrum for light and shadow; they reflect the final warmth, the last rays,” wrote Gustave Geffroy, Monet’s most faithful interpreter, when the artist’s now-iconic paintings of grainstacks–the first of the great serial endeavors that would come to define his artistic legacy–received their inaugural exhibition in May 1891. “At the close of the day the stacks glow like heaps of gems. Their sides split and light up. These red-glowing grainstacks throw lengthening shadows that are strewn with emeralds. Later still, under an orange and red sky, darkness envelops the grainstacks which have begun to glow like hearth fires...” (quoted in P.H. Tucker, Monet in the ’90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, p. 109).
The Grainstack series that Geffroy so poetically extolled–twenty-five canvases in all–was the most challenging and revolutionary endeavor that Monet, then fifty years old, had ever undertaken. While he had experimented during the later 1880s with depicting a single landscape subject under different lighting and weather conditions, never before had he conceived of painting so many pictures that were differentiated almost entirely through color, touch, and atmospheric effect. “A landscape hardly exists at all as a landscape,” Monet told a visitor to the 1891 exhibition, “because its appearance is constantly changing; it lives by virtue of its surroundings–the air and light–which vary continually” (quoted in ibid., p. 104). At the same time, the serial format allowed Monet to move beyond the description of isolated and fleeting events–the Impressionist stock-in-trade–to convey a sense of nature’s deeper wholeness and continuity. Revealing their secrets only at length, encouraging deep contemplation if not spiritual reverie, the Grainstacks thus represent the most crucial turning point in Monet’s entire career, marking out a path that the artist would follow well into the twentieth century.
The present painting is among the most formally adventurous of all the Grainstacks–part of a trio of canvases in which a single conical meule is seen close up and cropped by the frame, transcending naturalism in form and color alike (Wildenstein, nos. 1288-1289; Kunsthaus, Zürich, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Wildenstein places these monumental stacks at the very end of the series, as a fitting culmination to the entire project. Compared with earlier examples in the sequence, in which the effects of light and shade are more specific, the present view seems to convey what Monet felt and experienced before the motif as much as what he actually saw. He painted the scene looking southwest, with the sun setting behind the grainstack in the far right distance and the late afternoon sky glowing peach and gold. Rather than being darkened by shadow, however, the front face of the immense stack is suffused with pink and red as though the structure had absorbed the dazzling brilliance of the sunset through and through. “These fireworks of light and color emancipate themselves from their subject, their familiar natural environment, and they metamorphose into pure painting,” Christian von Holst has written (Claude Monet: Fields in Spring, exh. cat., Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 2006, p. 34).
When Kandinsky saw one of Monet’s Meules in an exhibition in Moscow in 1896, it struck him with the force of a revelation–as the inception of autonomous painting, the very beginning of abstraction. Yet to find the motif for this visionary and transformative project, Monet needed only to walk out his door at rural Giverny, to a field known as the Clos Morin that lay just west of his home. There, following the harvest, local farmers piled hundreds of sheaves of bound wheat stalks into tightly packed stacks, rising from fifteen to twenty feet in height and capped with thatched conical roofs. These served as storage facilities, protecting the crop from moisture and rodents until spring, when the grain could be more easily separated from the chaff. Monet set up his easel near the boundary wall of his garden, looking by turns west or southwest across the field toward the hills on the far bank of the Seine, about a mile away. From this vantage point, the landscape resolved before Monet’s eyes into an extremely spare and strongly geometric composition, which he rendered as parallel bands of field, hills, and sky that extend across the entire canvas, with a single grainstack or a pair dominating the foreground.
Monet first investigated the pictorial possibilities of these local grainstacks in five exploratory canvases that he painted during the fall and winter of 1888 (Wildenstein, nos. 1213-1217). His work was interrupted, however, early in 1889 first by a three-month painting campaign in the Creuse Valley, then by his major retrospective with Rodin at the Galerie Georges Petit and by a time-consuming project that he had initiated to donate Manet’s Olympia to the French State. In late July 1890, when he took up his brushes again after a hiatus of nearly a year, he consciously sought to reacquaint himself with Giverny’s fundamentally agrarian character, painting ten canvases that depict fields of hay, oats, and poppies at full maturity (nos. 1251-1260). He set these aside, however, as soon as the first unassuming grainstacks began to rise on the landscape–most likely in late August, when agrarian manuals of the time indicate that farmers would have started cutting their fields.
By early October, Monet was entirely absorbed in the project and had succeeded at delineating his aesthetic aims. “I’m working away at a series of different effects (of stacks),” he wrote to Geffroy, “but at this time of year, the sun sets so quickly that I can’t keep up with it. The further I go, the better I see that it takes a great deal of work to succeed in rendering what I want to render: instantaneity, above all the enveloppe, the same light diffused over everything” (quoted in J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 198). He pleaded with Durand-Ruel for more time when the dealer pressed him to deliver the oat and poppy pictures, and he canceled a proposed return visit to the Creuse Valley. When the property that he had been renting at Giverny since 1883 came up for sale in November, he hastened to purchase it at the hefty asking price rather than risk any disruption in his labors. “I am in the thick of work,” Monet could still declare in mid-January. “I have a huge number of things going and cannot be distracted for a minute, wanting above all to profit from these splendid winter effects” (quoted in P.H. Tucker, op. cit., 1989, p. 80).
Monet had evidently brought the series to some sort of conclusion by early February 1891, when he invited Durand-Ruel to come to Giverny. He was eager for the dealer to see the results of his labors, which–to judge from his later accounts of the series’ inception–he fully recognized as a radical new departure in his art. “When I started, I was just like the others,” he told a visitor to his studio. “I thought two canvases were enough–one for a ‘gray’ day, one for a ‘sunny’ day. At that time I was painting grainstacks that had caught my eye; they formed a magnificent group, right near here. One day I noticed that the light had changed. I said to my stepdaughter, ‘Would you go back to the house, please, and bring me another canvas.’ She brought it to me, but very soon the light had again changed. ‘One more!’ and, ‘One more still!’ And I worked on each one only until I had achieved the effect I wanted; that’s all. That’s not very hard to understand...” (quoted in M. Call, Claude Monet, Free Thinker, New York, 2015, p. 95).
Monet was never one for theorizing, and this oft-repeated account is thus vastly over-simplified, as the artist himself well knew. Although he began the paintings en plein air, grappling with nature’s transitory effects, he then spent upwards of two months re-working them in the studio–“harmonizing” the set, he called it–before releasing a batch to Durand-Ruel in May. “Clearly the realization of this series was an act of memory,” Andrew Forge has written, “as much as it was an observation of the instant” (Claude Monet, Chicago, 1995, p. 48). In the present canvas, Monet has retained only the faintest vestige of the deep shadow that the backlit meule would have cast diagonally across the foreground, indicating the passage of time; instead, he has rendered the field as a highly subjective mosaic of pastel touches. Bergson’s theory of la durée, popular among Monet’s Symbolist colleagues, was first published in 1889, and Darwin’s long-view of natural change, a favorite of the artist’s friend Clemenceau, was circulating as well. Surely these informed Monet’s revelatory treatment of time in the Meules, which evoke the eternal within the temporal, duration within the fleeting moment.
The grainstack motif itself, far from a mere pretext for such explorations, also has its own powerful resonance. The long-standing notion that France’s greatest strength lay in her rich land and beneficent climate had gained renewed momentum in the later nineteenth century, as cities and industry grew exponentially. There was a national outcry in 1889 when one of the nation’s most celebrated icons of rural life, Millet’s Angelus, was sold to an American collector; the painting’s return to France the following year was greeted with relief and fanfare. In selecting the grainstacks at Giverny as a motif, Monet was offering tangible evidence of the land’s fertility and compelling testimony to the health of rural France. “Monet’s paintings implied that the countryside was a place where one could find reassurances about the world,” Paul Tucker has proposed, “where contemporary problems seemed to vanish, and a deeper union with nature appeared possible” (op. cit., 1989, p. 111).
Monet imbued the Meule series, moreover, with a profoundly social dimension, despite the fact that rural workers and other overt signs of labor are entirely absent. The grainstacks at Giverny represented the local farmers’ livelihood–the fruits of their labors and their hopes for the future. In the background of all but two of the paintings in the sequence, Monet depicted these smallholders’ houses and barns, nestled at the base of the distant hills; when the meules become enormous, as in the present canvas, these structures meet the stacks at the exact center of the composition. From one painting to the next, we also sense Monet’s own deep engagement with the stacks, which assert themselves as individual entities at the same time that they become one with the enveloping atmosphere. “Although inert, the stacks seem to be invested with great feeling,” Tucker has written, “for when the morning sun appears, they turn their faces to greet it; when it goes down in a brilliant display of warmth and power, they quiver at the sight. They swelter in the midday heat of summer, huddle together in the fading light of winter, and stand mournfully alone in the evenings, like solitary actors on a dimly lit, deserted stage” (ibid., p. 90).
Durand-Ruel knew a good thing when he saw it. Although he had initially envisioned reviving the Impressionist group show in 1891, he acquiesced without complaint to Monet’s insistence on a solo exhibition of select recent work–a marketing strategy that would hold sway for the rest of the artist’s career. The show opened to great acclaim in mid-May, with fifteen Meules on view and a smattering of earlier paintings; Monet by then was hard at work on the next of his great serial endeavors, the Poplars. By the close of 1891, all but two of the Grainstacks had left the artist’s studio, leading Pissarro for one to lament his own lesser fortunes. “For the moment, people want nothing but Monets. Apparently he can’t paint enough pictures to meet the demand. Worst of all, they all want Grainstacks in the Setting Sun!” (quoted in ibid., p. 106). The present painting is believed to be one of five from the series that Knoedler selected from the artist in September 1891, and the only one from that group to remain today in private hands (Wildenstein, nos. 1271, 1279, 1284, and 1289).
Well over half of the Grainstacks found their way in short order to major collectors across the Atlantic–Potter Palmer, Alfred Pope, Harris Whittemore, and Henry Havemeyer, among others–and from there into various American museums, where they inspired a whole new generation of colorists in the post-war era. “Monet taught me to understand what a revolution in painting can be,” proclaimed the surrealist painter André Masson, who spent the years during the Second World War in New York and was instrumental in championing Monet’s late work. “Only with Monet does painting take a turn. He dispels the very notion of form that has dominated us for millennia. He bestows absolute poetry on color. I don’t connect the idea of color either with Van Gogh or Cézanne...but with the luster of Monet’s paintings, with the intoxication I always get from looking at them. If there’s a colorist alive today, he owes it to Monet, whether he knows it or not” (quoted in Monet and Modernism, exh. cat., Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, 2001, p. 242).