Monday, September 24, 2007

Gardens in Art - Monet and Vétheuil

The Artist's Garden at Vétheuil, 1880
Claude Monet French, 1840 - 1926
oil on canvas, 151.5 x 121 cm
(59 7/8 x 47 5/8 in.)

Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.45
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Given the time lost last week, I'm going to focus this week almost entirely on Monet's paintings of gardens. I'm hoping you'll see a a pastel emerging from me before the end of the week!

A constant theme of Monet's work in the 1860s-70s-80s was the family at home and in the garden. First some context for today's post.

Towards the end of the 1870s, Monet was facing a number of challenges. The domestic idyll at Argenteuil was ending - his wife Camille's health was failing (she looks much less substantial in paintings completed of her in the garden in 1876); his latest patron Hoschedé declared himself bankrupt and Monet experienced severe financial worries and cashflow problems.

After completing the Gare Saint Lazare series of paintings for the Impressionist Exhibition of 1877, he moved his family back to Paris and then painted very little in the later months of 1877. His second son Michel was born in March 1878 and Camille's health became very fragile and she became confined to bed.

In September 1878, Monet moved his family and rented a house on the southern edge of Vétheuil, a quiet village on banks of the River Seine nearly 40 miles north of Paris. Shortly after settling there, Hoschedé turned to Monet for help and it was agreed that he and his wife Alice and should come and live as part of Monet household. Alice Hoschedé ran the household and provided help and support for both families as Camille first declined in health and then died in September 1879. Hoschedé subsequently returned to Paris to try and recover his losses and by the end of 1881, Monet realised he could no longer afford the house at Vétheuil.

At Vétheuil, Monet's paintings of gardens are fewer but continue to feature those he lives with. He painted four views of this view of the gardens at Vétheuil - and links to and comments on three of them are below.
  • In the NGA version of The Artist's Garden at Vétheuil (see top), his son Michel is pictured with his wagon standing at the bottom of the steps up to the house - which is obscured by banks of tall sunflowers. Behind him are Jean-Pierre Hoschedé and another member of the household. Figures and faces are defined in very broad terms only. Apparently the large blue and white flowerpots were Monet’s and turn up in various paintings as they move from garden to garden. This is a link to enlarged sections of the picture which show the detail of the work. The work has had an extensive exhibition 'career'.
By the early 1880s, when this work was painted, Monet was increasingly interested in the painted surface itself and less concerned with capturing a spontaneous effect of light and atmosphere. The very composition of this painting, with its high horizon, traps our eye in the canvas; even the path is blocked in the distance by the rising steps. We are forced back to the surface, where the paint is textured and heavily layered. At close range, these brushstrokes seem less descriptive than decorative.
The National Gallery of Art, Washington
Light bathes the scene, heightening all of the colors and penetrating even into the darkest shadows. These shadows are painted in blues, deep purples, and dark greens. Executed with short, energetic brushstrokes, the artist's garden resonates with the colors of summer.
The Norton Simon Museum
  • the next image if of a third and smaller version which is in a private collection. Monet appears to be experimenting with the impact of an intense blue sky on a very hot day above the yellow and orange colours of the sunflowers. I'm also struck by how the positioning of the small boys in this version makes their faces appear to be like those of the sunflowers. Nicholas Pioch (WebMuseum) comments it's one of the flattest paintings he has ever seen.
The Artist's Garden at Vetheuil, 1881
Oil on canvas, 100 x 80 cm (39 3/8 x 31 1/2 in)
Private collection

This is one of the flattest landscapes ever painted. At around the same time, Cezanne was flattening his still lifes by distorting the tables to a vertical orientation. Monet stops short of distortion through a judicious choice of subject. A hillside staircase provides the form for a dramatic flattening of the painting. Monet accentuates this effect with a strong dividing line going up the right side of the stairs, between the houses and continuing up the chimney to the top of the canvas. The sky and buildings are highly geometrized forms whose flatness serves to bring the deepest part of the composition back up to the picture plane. The stairs are not individually distinguishable; if not for the children placed on them, they could be read as a cliff. The children themselves are frozen in full frontal portrayal, which again contributes to the flattening effect. There are few perspectival clues provided. No clouds are shown that would break up the solid plane of dark blue sky. No shadows can be discerned, even though the scene is bathed in sunlight. This results in a number of interesting ambiguities. Are the buildings next to each other, nearly touching? Or is one or the other to be perceived as in front? The structure on the left seems to be directly at the top of the stairs. But the blue roof on the right draws a line across the pink roof that brings it abruptly forward, hanging precariously over the hillside. Even the sunflowers are puzzling. The blossoms do not diminish in size as would be expected as they near the top of the canvas. As a result, they can be read either as a wall of plants at the base of the staircase, or as rows of vegetation terracing the hillside. This work, so unlike much of Monet's work in its flat plane composition, is a testament to the breadth of his oeuvre.
Nicolas Pioch, Web Museum - commenting on "The Artist's Garden at Vetheuil "1881

(Left) Alice Hoschedé in the Garden, 1881
Medium:Painting - oil on canvas
Private collection

(right) Woman Seated under the Willows, 1880
oil on canvas, 81.1 x 60 cm (31 7/8 x 23 5/8 in.)
Chester Dale Collection 1963.10.178
National Gallery of Art, Washington

While at Vétheuil it would appear that Alice Hoschedé as well as running the household also took on the role of being model for paintings requiring figures. "Woman Seated under the Willows" (NGA, Washington) is, I imagine, Alice while a year later she is named in the title of one of his paintings from this period. What is very interesting about the first painting is the almost calligraphic way in which Monet is making marks with his brush. Check this link for an example. This seems to be more sketchy in a stylised way.

What I find interesting is whether Monet is changing how he paints figures in the garden during this period. The treatment of children seems very similar - but I wonder whether the sketchiness of paintings of Camille precedes and is reflected in the calligraphic treatment of the woman under the willows - or whether it reflects the nature of his relationship with the two women. Or maybe whether he is just changing the way he paints in the decade following the advent of Impressionism.......

Note - This post has been included in two of my squidoo lenses - Gardens in Art - Resources for Artists and Claud Monet - Resources for Art Lovers. These also list previous posts on "Making A Mark" which relate to either the 'Gardens in Art' project and/or Monet.



Unknown said...

ooh I pastel! I'll be watching for it!

Rose Welty said...

Katherine, it's an interesting question you pose there at the end. I may stumble across it in this book . There is a chapter on brushwork. I'll let you know. Oh, and he agrees with you on the sketchbooks.

Belinda Lindhardt said...

Again, this is such a fabulous post and insight into his works Katherine this is so inspiring and this is exactly why i love tagging along on these adventures :)thanks again:) watching out for that pastel :)

Robyn Sinclair said...

I'm delighted that we are you to be treated to another of your garden pastels too, Katherine. This is a fascinating post. I love Monet's 'flat' painting and its slight Van Gogh flavour.

Making A Mark said...

I better get myself sorted to get one produced! This was always supposed to be the purpose of this month - but the side swipe from NR completely knocked me off kilter. Time for some redress!

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