Turner to Monet
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 – the air and the light, which vary continually … For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives objects their true value.
As he matured as an artist, Monet returned to the same motif with endless variations: Rouen Cathedral, poplars, haystacks, waterlilies. It was only in this way that he could seek to capture differing effects of light on objects, and changing times of day, as the nominal theme and composition differed only to a small degree. In the ice-floe paintings he made in and after the severe winter of 1892–93, there are even fewer variables, as the dazzlingly colourful effects of sunlight on vegetation or stone surfaces have been eliminated.
Monet had addressed the subject of ice breaking up on the Seine – the ‘débacle’ of the title – at least twice before, in 1868 at Bougival, and in 1879–80 at Lavacourt, near Vétheuil. The thirteen Giverny paintings of 1893–94 were composed and begun at the small village of Bennecourt near his house.2
Having swept along its ice floes for several days, the Seine finally froze over in mid-January, 1893. Monet set up on the Bennecourt bank and painted the river looking towards the hills on the left bank.3
The date 1894 written on the canvas, a year after the freezing flood, puts firmly to rest the myth that Monet always painted out of doors: like almost all artists he finished works in the studio, sometimes large parts of them.
In Morning haze Monet’s subject is the disappearance of form and colour under nature’s wintry grey and white coverings of snow and fog on a river. Like Turner, Monet attempts to paint the ineffable appearance of light and water, the infinite array of snow, river, vapour and sky. The tonal spectrum he employs is small, varying from very light to middle tones, while his palette is limited to mixed hues of white and the palest shades of grey and purple. But the skin of paint is robust, built up in layers like masonry. The way mist dissolves material reality is evoked by a haze of paint. The bright snow on the bank emphasises the snow on the ice floes, while the river’s surface reflects the mist and sky, as well as the trees on the far bank and on the little islets. By cutting off the foreground, Monet allows the river to flow out of the canvas, encroaching into the viewer’s world. As so often in Monet’s painting, his experience of transience, of recording an instant, implies time passing and the inevitability of change.
1 Said by the artist to a visitor to his Haystacks exhibition in 1891, see W.G.C. Bijvanck, ‘Une Impression (Claude Monet)’ in his Un Hollandais à Paris en 1891, Paris: Perrin, 1892, p. 177, quoted in John House, Monet: nature into art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986, pp. 28–9.
2 Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet: biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne: La Bibliothèque des arts, 1974–1991, 5 vols, cat. 1333–1344, see vol. III, pp. 542–6.
3 Wildenstein, vol. III, pp. 542–3.