Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Monet's series paintings - stacks of wheat

Grainstacks in the Sunlight, Morning Effect 1890
oil on canvas, Claude Monet
Private Collection

Wheatstacks in a field next to Claude Monet's home at Giverny were the motif of his first attempt at a large series of paintings.

As part of my working in a series project, I've been researching the background to this series and have also had a go at two small drawing of some stacks with different light effects - and you can see the results in this post. As I'm also going to be looking at other series in Monet's paintings I've devised a set of headings common to all which helps me (and you!) locate particular information relating to each series.

The motif and its significance

The word Meules means stacks and meules appears to have been variously translated as haystacks (Meules de foin) or grain stacks (meules de grain). See the end for an excellent explanation of the difference for the agriculturally challenged! I'm going to refer to them as stacks or stacks of wheat.

The series of paintings of stacks are about Monet's obsession with identifying and exploring the colour of the 'enveloppe' at different times of the day and in different seasons. He's not so much painting the objects in the painting as painting the atmosphere (the 'enveloppe' ) surrounding them.
For me a landscape hardly exists at all as a landscape, because its appearance is constantly changing; but it lives by virtue of its surroundings, the air and the light which vary continually.
Claude Monet
The colour of the haystacks vary according to the time of day they were painted and how the light shone on the haystack at the time. The colour that the haystack is perceived to be by Monet is wholly determined by which colours are absorbed by the haystack. What's left is the the colour that cannot be absorbed - and that's the colour of the haystack

Traditionally, scholars have tended to think that the motifs in Monet's series paintings were just objects which he used to explore how light, colour and form changed over the course of the day and in different weather conditions. However other art historians now suggest that Monet was also interested in painting pictures which included objects which had meaning and significance within French culture.

Stacks of wheat are also a traditional symbol of the persistence of rural tradition - in a time of increasing industrialisation and urbanisation at the end of the nineteenth century. They also symbolise the continuity of the agricultural cycle over the centuries, the fertility of the land, the wealth of local farmers and the general prosperity of the area.

The stacks he painted were 15-20 feet high.

The Location

The stacks were painted in fields to the west of Monet's home in Giverny, France. His second studio, erected in 1899 (after the series was completed) has a view out of the field where he painted - and the view which is present in many of the paintings can be seen in a photograph from the window which is reproduced in a number of the books.

Most of the views of the stacks are looking west or south west. The hills which are seen in the distance are on the far bank of the Seine. There are buildings and lines of poplars in the background but they're subordinated to the shape of the stacks in the foreground and middle ground.

In 1890 a particularly large stack was erected close to the wall of Monet's Giverny property - as can be seen in a painting by Theodore Robinson.

Stacks View (after Monet)
14cm x 20cm
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

The dates

A series of 25 canvases were completed in 1890/91 (Wildenstein Index Number 1266-1290). They were begun at the end of September in the autumn of 1890 and Monet then spent the next seven months working on the paintings. It's likely he was working on them in the studio between February and April 1891. 15 were exhibited by his dealer Durand Ruel in May 1891

The process

Monet had painted meules de foin (haystacks) in the 1880s - you can see
Haystacks at Giverny dated 1885 on the right. These were more general paintings of the landscape around Giverny.

Haystacks at Giverny (1885)
Claude Monet
Private Collection
The bigger 'meules de ble' first appeared in 1889 when Monet completed a small group of canvases. This includes Grain Stacks, Effect of Hoar Frost in the Hill Stead Museum in Connecticut

By 1890, Monet has reached the stage in his career where he was interested in
  • working out how to suggest space and depth through the use of colour
  • the complexity of patterns found in his environment
He started painting in late September 1890. The process adopted for painting 25 canvases portraying the stacks over a period of 7 months was as follows
  • Preparation: at some point Monet created 10 small sketches of line, contours and simple shapes in a small sketchbook measuring 110 x 180 millimetres. The drawing is tentative and provisional in character and suggests the drawings were impromptu and exploring what sort of picture could be created
  • Planning: It seems unlikely that he intentionally set out to paint 25 canvases. However by December he could see the cumulative impact of the canvases he'd started and could see the potential of a significant series.
  • Canvases: all the canvases were comparatively homogeneous in size
  • Design: the design of the paintings has stripped the subject matter back to basics. All extraneous detail is omitted - the shapes are bold, simple and few. There are no figures, no vehicles and no animals in view. The shape and pitch of the stacks echoed the pitch of houses and barns nearby. Each was placed with care relative to the line of the horizon. Shadows altered according to the time of day.
  • None of the paintings tell us anything specific about the place - it could be anywhere in France. Of the paintings, 9 have a pair of stacks with the larger one on the right. Most of the single stacks are paintings which show the effects of hoar frost or snow. As the series progressed the stacks seemed to get ever larger until finally they are cropped within the picture plane.
  • Colour: The complexity arises with the portrayal of colour within the envelope of light surrounding the objects in the paintings. He worked on his colour harmonies when back in the studio. Many of the colour schemes of individual paintings were altered late in the day to enable them to be differentiated and yet contribute to the aesthetic of the group.
  • Brushwork: Monet's brushwork changed around 1890. Surfaces became more opaque and dense in texture. More dabs and fewer swirls activated the surface of the painting and the planes of colour. The marks are not representational so much as related to what's required for that area of the painting.
  • Set-up: He used to set up his easel before dawn or before sunset - either end of the day. His children used to help carry his canvases and painting gear into the field. He then worked on whichever canvas most closely corresponded with the light and the weather and might work on more than one in one session. There are different views as to whether Monet used more than one easel when working with several canvases at once. It seems likely that it was easier to swop the paintings around than to cart more than one easel out to the field.
  • Studio work: The conflict between Monet's attempt both to paint ephemeral lighting and atmosphere and create pictorial richness ensured that he made more use of his studio when working on these paintings. His dominant concern with this series is the internal unity and coherence of the group of paintings as a whole. Monet used the studio setting to revise the paintings and rework the colour harmonies. The editing which took place was partly to create greater contrasts between individual canvases and also to make sure that all the paintings formed part of an integrated whole which had its own aesthetic.
  • Changes: Many of the paintings show signs of pentimenti - changes during the process of poainting. Stacks were moved by inches in some.
  • Signature: he only signed when had finished. From the stacks series onwards, his signature becomes a keynote and part of the overall colour aesthetic.
  • Prints: A drawing was produced after the paintings were completed. Monet used a black wax crayon to convey the shapes and colours into a monochrome format which was then converted into a print. You can see an online copy in the National Gallery of Western Art in Tokyo.
The paintings are generally regarded as being the first abstracted work that Monet completed. Apparently Kandinsky on viewing the paintings which is in the Kunsthaus Zürich did not even recognise it as a grain stack!

The exhibition and the reviews

Monet was adamant that the series of paintings had an aesthetic quality of its own and that the value of the paintings could only really be appreciated when they were all seen together.

Accordingly, the paintings were arrayed in a line
when exhibited in Durand-Ruel's gallery in May 1891. People could walk up and down the line and look at each sequentially or stand back and see them all together. The Art Institute of Chicago follows the same format for its presentation of its six stacks paintings in the present day.

The stacks series received lavish praise. Some described them as the 'faces of the landscape'. Gustave Geffroy compared the stacks to the planets and the stars and their colour to gemstones, human blood and fire!

There was a general consensus that series as a body of work had a mythical quality which appealed to the intellect of the critics and the buyers.

Stacks of wheat (end of summer) - after Monet
14cm x 20cm
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Where are the haystack paintings now?

30 canvases survive which feature stacks of wheat. Of these 25 relate to the autumn of 1890/91. Three were completed in the studio and signed in 1890 and 22 in 1891.

A small group of 4 paintings are dated 1889 and there is one undated painting. Other paintings can be more generally described as landscapes which include stacks of wheat.

Four of the six Stacks of wheat in the Art Institute of Chicago

Photos by Joethelion - Some rights reserved

The series paintings are now scattered across the globe.
I've created an information site for this series - Monet Haystacks - Resources for Artists - which I'll continue to develop as the project develops.

I'd be interested to hear if any of the above came as a surprise to anybody and what you think about Monet's approach to painting a series.

Note for the agriculturally impaired

Hay was cut from green grass with a scythe, laid in parallel windrows on the ground, dried and turned with hand-held or horse-drawn rakes after a few days of sunshine, raked by hand or horse-drawn sleds into “cobs” or “cocks” or head-high stacks in the field for further drying, then carted to the farmyard or barn where they were made into more durable ricks or stacks out of the weather’s way.

Grain crops were cut with scythe or sickle when the plants had already turned from green to gold; the fallen plants were immediately bundled into a sheaf, tied with a few straw stalks; then six to eight sheaves were leaned against each other to form a reasonably weather-proof stook or shook, which stood in the field until the sheaves were carted off to compose larger even more rain-resistant stacks, grain-ends in, cut-stalks out, either in a barn or left out in the fields.

Hay in Art -Missed stacks and mistakes: distinguishing between hay and straw and other heaps.


Links to these books and descriptions of their contents can be found in my information site about Monet - Claude Monet - Resources for Art Lovers
Monet Haystacks - Resources for Artists


  1. There's a good book on Monet called 'The Colour of Time' too.

  2. I know - I spotted it recently and it's the next one I'm getting.

  3. Hi Katherine - I like Monet, but know so little of his work, I knew he had done water lily and haystack series, and was looking for information on his haystack series for a story I am writing. It was my good fortune to click on an image that brought me to your blog on Monet's series paintings - stacks of wheat. The information was quite helpful. Thank you very much.

  4. KT,
    Wheat stacks were precisely a result of mechanisation - the invention of the threshing-machine [see, as ever, Wikip]

    The 'rural tradition' was to hand-flail the wheat - requiring huge numbers of [worn-out] 'flailers'.

    Flailers, deprived of their jobs by the stack system, often burned the stacks down in 'revenge' - and also burned-down the new grain grinding-mills, owned by the [wicked] landlords. That why, along with dovecots [also burned own] so few survive in Europe.

    So Monet wasn't at all painting 'tradition' but a new mechanised invention.



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