Monday, October 20, 2008

Why and how Monet developed his series paintings

Cover of Monet in the 90s by Paul Hayes Tucker
The book focuses on Monet's series paintings

Monet is known for his series paintings - but why and how did they come about?

As part of the working in series project I'm studying Monet's series paintings. His series paintings had two characteristics:
  • they were paintings of the same or very similar objects that were typically all developed at the same time
  • they created a new artistic experience of unity when exhibited together as a whole
After some extensive research in my books about Monet (listed at the end) I've managed to produce an initial summary of why and how Monet developed his series paintings. This is divided into different sections. As I intend to develop more posts about some of individual series of paintings, I've intentionally limited this post to bullet points relevant to an overview of the various series paintings.

This post looks at:
  • why Monet painted series paintings
  • when he painted his series paintings
  • the various reasons leading to his choice of subject matter
  • which paintings are regarded as part of his series paintings
  • and finally, how he actually designed and painted the series paintings from a practice perspective.
Why did Monet paint series paintings?
  • he was an established painter - but there was a need for him to be seen to be doing new things
  • Monet would have known about Valencienne's notion that it was good to paint the same object at different times of the day (although Valenciennes was thinking about studies for a painting)
It is good to paint the same view at different hours of the day, to study the differences which light makes on forms. The changes are so clear and so astonishing that one can scarcely recognise the same objects
Valenciennes 1800
  • Monet collected Japanese prints and would have become aware of the practice of Japanese artists painting a place (eg Views of Mount Fuji) in a series with one motif present throughout (see Japanese art)
  • Monet began to be more absorbed in pictorial unity in later life. Initially within the individual picture and then across a series of paintings as an entity in their own right.
  • Exhibitions of Monet paintings focused on a series of canvases with one subject from 1891 onwards.
  • Each series was usually (but not always) exhibited as a group shortly after they were completed. When they were exhibited as a group the viewer could more readily appreciate the impact of the group as a whole and the relationships between the paintings
  • In the 1880s, dealers who bought a number of paintings for display in their galleries became much more important to the artist. Monet's dealer was Paul Durand-Ruel and it's possible that he prompted Monet to think in terms of series as it provided a focus for his gallery's exhibitions of Monet's work.
When did he paint the series paintings
  • Most were painted in the 1890s while others, such as the grainstacks, grew into a series over time.
  • Two of the major series associated with place, London and Venice, were largely developed in the 20th century.
What were the reasons behind the choice of subject matter?
  • repetition of a motif is not new having been employed by many painters in the past. Monet knew that painters also returned to motifs which had personal significance to the artist.
  • He was influenced by the work of Turner and Monet's subjects tended to be capable of transformation in situations of different lighting and atmosphere
  • subjects were always chosen for a specific reason (eg poplars are a patriotic motif of France).
  • sometimes they were an example of another more enduring subject which interested him (eg he became interested in painting Rouen Cathedral because of what it looked like in fog and the impact of the light on colour)
  • some series paintings were painted at specific times of the year (eg waterlilies were only painted in the summer months).
  • proximity to the subject matter played an important part. If he had to travel, it was more likely that paintings would be more limited in terms of numbers.
  • the development of his garden started in the 1890s with the purchase of the house at Giverney in 1890 and subsequently the plot of land which became the water garden in 1893. However he needed to absorb his new surroundings before it became a subject he could paint (eg the waterlillies)
  • his main reasons for painting in series changed over time. Initially they were about recording the impact of changing light and weather conditions on his motif. Towards the end of his life he became more interested in the play of light upon structures and adjacent water (eg in Venice)
What are the series paintings?

The series paintings comprise ones which focus on one motif and ones which are about paintings of a particular place. The latter can also sub-groups associated with specific motifs.

The motif series are:
  • Grainstacks / haystacks (there's a difference of opinion about they should be described in English (painted between October 1890 and January 1891; 15 exhibited in May 1891)
  • Poplars on the Epte (Starts work on the Poplar series in 1891. 15 paintings exhibited February 29 - March 10th at Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris)
  • Fog and mist - discussed as a motif after the grainstack series was completed. Links Rouen, London and some of the Morning on the Seine series
  • Rouen Cathedral (painted March 1892, Feb-April 1893; 20 Rouen paintings exhibited in Galerie Durand-Ruel May 10th-31st 1895)
  • Mornings on the Seine (painted 1896/7; first exhibited 1898)
  • Waterlilies and the water garden at Giverny - including
    • the Japanese Bridge (12 views of the bridge painted between July-September 1899; exhibited by Durand-Ruel in November/December 1900)
    • the waterlilies (starts summer 1903, continues each summer in summer 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908; exhibited at various exhibitions after these dates)
Series associated with particular places:
  • Creuse Valley (24 paintings in February-May 1889)
  • Vetheuil
  • The coast of Normandy
  • London - Houses of Parliament and Bridges (three visits to London 1899-1901 produces 97 paintings and 26 pastels; exhibited in 1904)
  • Venice
He never exhibited the flower garden at Giverny as a series.

How did he paint the series paintings?
  • Monet saw the series paintings as a single unit. His main concern was whether he could achieve the internal unity and coherence of the group that he strived for.
  • Prior to the 1890s it has been his practice to paint more than one painting of the same subject.
  • In the 1880s he began to create small groups of paintings of a place and working on several canvases which all portrayed the same subject on the same day. From a practical perspective, this enabled him to work continuously whatever the weather.
  • By 1887 he had decided that he needed to see the subject at all times and in all weathers in order to really know it.
  • The Grainstack series was the turning point in terms of how he approached his art. With this series, Monet made the study of place subordinate to the study of the variations of light and its impact on colour at different times of the day and in different atmospheric conditions. Where the grainstacks are located is simply not important (apart from the fact that being in a field in Giverny it made it easier for Monet to paint them!)
  • From a compositional perspective, from the grainstack series onwards, his practice was to choose a single dominant feature for each series. He also tended to flatten form into pattern by reducing forms to simple shapes often making his subject matter into silhouettes.
  • Seeveral canvases for a series of paintings could all be begun at the same time - and then worked on as appropriate to the season, weather and light.
  • Monet's main problem in starting a series of paintings all at the same time was that this then had the potential to creat anxieties in terms of the number of paintings he had on the go waiting to be finished.
  • Paintings were reworked in the studio within a context of them needing to work together as an integrated and organic whole. The more paintings he started the more reworking he had to do in the studio.
  • It looks as if timetabling the different series was important. He needed series which were appropriate to the time of year so that he wasn't working on all his series at the same time and could devote specific periods to one subject.
  • As Monet's practice of working in a series developed, he also started to favour working on certain subjects at certain times of the day (eg Mornings on the Seine) probably because he felt that time of day produced the most interesting effects.
I am grinding away bent on a series of different effects, but at this time of year, the sun goes down so quickly that I cannot keep up with it.....I am becoming a very slow worker, which depresses me, but the further I go, the more I understand that it is imperative to work a great deal to achieve what I seek - 'instaneity' above all......the same light present everywhere and more than ever easy things that come at a single stroke disgust me. In the end, I am excited by the need to render what I feel and vow to live on not too unproductively because it seems to mw that I will make progress
Claude Monet (letter to Gustave Geffroy 7 October 1890

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: Nature into Art by John House. This has a whole chapter devoted to the evolution of Monet's Series
  • Monet in the '90s: The Series Paintings by Paul Hayes Tucker. Book produced for an exhibition of Monet's paintings in the 90s. Proposes that Monet's series paintings also related to contemporary events in France and to Monet's determination to provide active leadership for his nation's artistic production.
  • Monet in the 20th Century by Paul Hayes Tucker, George Shackleford. Covers the London and Venice paintings well plus the waterlilly paintings
  • Turner, Whistler, Monet: Impressionist Visions Katharine Lochnan and others,
  • (240 pages) Tate Publishing (May 1, 2004) ISBN-10: 1854375326 ISBN-13: 978-1854375322
  • Monet's Landscapes Vivien Russell (160 pages) Publisher: Frances Lincoln (July 10, 2006); ISBN-10: 0711224536; ISBN-13: 978-0711224537


  1. What a lovely post to reflect upon, Katherine and then to explore all your resources. I'm not even supposed to be thinking about art at present - but you are a bit of a Siren.

  2. I love your haystack drawings Katherine, wonderful colours!


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