Haystacks, midday is one of a series Claude Monet painted of wheat stacks in a field adjoining his property at Giverny near Paris. Some critics thought they looked unfinished and left out too many details, but when his fellow Impressionist Camille Pissarro saw them he said: ‘These paintings breathe happiness’.
Everything quivers under the light and heat of the sun. Each stroke of paint is indefinite; there are no defined edges. Fuzzy pink and yellow paint around the stacks suggests the vibrancy of the light coming from behind. The Impressionists realised there is no black in nature, so the shadows as well as the forms have colour in them. Even the farmhouses through the trees are painted blue.
‘One must know how to seize the moment of the landscape at the exact instant, for the moment will never return,’ Monet said. ‘A landscape lives through what surrounds it, through light and air which change continuously.’ After painting in the open for 30 years, he was so sensitive to light changes that trying to record his ‘impressions’ was ‘a continual torture’. When the light changed he tossed a canvas aside, to be reworked back in the studio, and started on another one.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014
This is one of eight paintings of stacks of wheat that Monet began in the late summer and. autumn of 1890.1 Of these eight paintings, six, including the Australian National Gallery's picture, share a similar format of two stacks with the nearer one at the right silhouetted against a field, a band of trees, hills and sky.2 The stacks were in a field adjoining Monet's own property at Giverny, a village in the Seine Valley about 80 kilometres north-west of Paris.3 Painting the stacks 'contre-jour', against the sun, Monet would have been facing south-west over the field to the hills that rise on the far bank of the Seine between Port Villez and Le Grand Val.
Monet continued to paint the stacks of wheat in his neighbour's field through the winter of 1890-91, producing seventeen more canvases of the stacks seen singly or in pairs, so that by the spring of 1891 he had twenty-five paintings of the same subject. To this might be added a further five paintings of stacks made in the autumn and winter of 1888-894, bringing the total number of paintings in similar configuration to at least thirty. From these Monet chose fifteen (although this does not seem to have included the Gallery's painting) as the centrepiece of an exhibition of twenty-two recent paintings that opened at Durand-Ruel's gallery on 4 May 1891.5 The exhibition was a spectacular critical and financial success. Almost the entire series of paintings of stacks was sold within the year, with the majority being bought by American collectors. Mrs Berthe Honoré Palmer of Chicago, the wife of wealthy real estate magnate Potter Palmer, bought no less than nine from the series—including the Canberra painting—either directly from the artist or through Monet's dealers.6
The first clear evidence that Monet was at work on the stacks of wheat paintings appears in a letter dated 7 October 1890 to his friend Gustave Geffroy:
I am hard at it; I am adamant about doing a series of different effects (stacks), but at this time of the year thesun sets so quickly that I can't follow it … I am becoming so slow in my work that it exasperates me, further I go, the more I see that it is necessary to work a great deal in order to achieve what I am looking for: 'instantaneity especially the 'enveloppe', the same light spreading everywhere; and more than ever, things that come all at once disgust me. Finally I am more and more driven by the need to realise what I feel, and I vow not to be weak, because it seems to me that I am making progress.7
Clearly it was the changing effects of light, rather than the stacks themselves, that fascinated Monet. As he told one visitor to the exhibition at Durand-Ruel in 1891: 'For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but its surroundings bring it to life, through the air and the light, which continually vary …'.8 Monet's sensitivity to the rapidity with which light changed (sharpened by three decades of painting in the open air) was accompanied by an equally acute awareness of the complexities of these shortlive effects as they suffused the atmospheric 'enveloppe'. Hence his dilemma and frustration; it took him longer to paint shorter and shorter effects of light. This paradox was compounded by his 'disgust' for 'things that come all at once'-the quick sketch. In 1892 he told Theodore Robinson that he was now only satisfied by 'a long continued effort'. 'If what I do no longer has the charm of youth, I hope it has some more serious qualities, that one might live for longer with one of these canvases.'9
The Gallery's painting was certainly the result of 'a long continued effort'. In the broad strokes that form the substructure of this painting can be detected Monet's first attempt to capture the general impression and lay out the major elements of the scene. In this process some grass was even mixed up in the paint and remains in the bottom right-hand edge of the painting. However, the layers of paint subsequently built up on the surface and certain significant changes in the composition suggest a protracted period of successive reworkings, presumably carried out both before the motif and in the studio.
Monet made a number of quite significant changes to the composition. With the assistance of the diagram based on X-rays, the ghost of these changes in the textured brushstrokes of the painting itself can still be seen. The large stack is about twice its original size, and its shadow was modified accordingly. Simultaneously Monet shifted the smaller stack twice, towards the left, finally cropping it at the edge of the canvas. 10 These changes would be consistent with Monet altering his physical viewpoint, moving closer and closer to the right-hand stack and thus increasing the interval to the left stack. Perhaps his immediate concern with the enlargement of the right stack was to make a more dramatic silhouette, as it now pushes its peak above the horizon, catching the glare from behind. Or perhaps it just grew under the kneading of his constant attention, so transformed by the act of looking and painting that the resulting image is paradoxically both very specific and barely tangible. The telescoping vision evident in the changes of the Gallery's painting parallels a progressively close-up focus on the stacks as the summer series progressed, culminating in a dramatic cropped silhouette of a single large stack.
The layered paint structure also suggests sessions of reworking and refinement over time, as the whole canvas was gradually keyed up to the shimmering corona of light which edges the central stack as it catches the glare of the sun from behind. That intense contour, inflected with tiny touches of red-orange at the top of the stack, reverberates in the pink that flecks the stubble-field, the touches of orange in the sky and the shimmering yellow outline of the trees in the background, so that the whole surface vibrates with the haze of the midday heat. The paint layer is so thick that in places it rises above the contour of the stacks, literally recording Monet's preoccupation with the unity of the 'enveloppe', the same ambient light suffusing background, field and sky alike.11
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.72.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra