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Haystack, sunset
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Group: The Series

Artist: Claude MONET
Birth/Death: 1840–1926

Title: Haystack, sunset
Date Made: 1891

Lender: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

In 1890–91 Monet painted the changing relationships between himself and one or two stacks and the other elements in the landscape, the escarpment, trees and cottages as he moved around them. They are seen in the near distance, or from close up, with the fiery cone of the haystack rearing against the sky, as does Mount Fuji in Hokusai’s Red Fuji.

With dazzling variations of colour scales and infinitely varied brushstrokes, Monet transformed the spectator’s perception of the simple geometric shapes — as the brilliant variations on the pure shape of Fuji also draw attention to Hokusai’s powers of transformation.

Monet’s obvious inspiration would have come from Hokusai’s two famous prints of the pure, rearing triangle of the mountain seen from nearby so that it occupies the whole space of the print. One of these prints, South wind, clear skies (Red Fuji) was hung prominently in the ‘small salon’ at Giverny. Its most striking relationship is with Monet’s Haystack, sunset, with its fiery cone rearing against the sky, but its presence is implicit in every work in the series.

The relationship between the Haystack, sunset and Red Fuji is profound. Both emit an extraordinary radiance. Both mountain and haystack have a slightly darkened upper cone and glowing red lower cone. Their simple geometric shapes are placed asymmetrically, so that the luminosity of their very different skies plays a dynamic role in the composition. Their peaks thrust upwards into the sky. In the Hokusai print, the ethereal dream-like mountain is anchored to the earth by the gravitational pull of the green slopes. The emphatic diagonal of the green shadow below the haystack plays so similar a role that one could well imagine Monet wished to draw attention to the affinities of the sacred mountain and his almost homely, but transfigured counterpart.

Hokusai’s printmaker created luminosity through planes of translucent colour, in which one can discern the marks of wood grain. Monet did so by building up countless strokes of prismatic colour. He used them to indicate the vibration of intense light across the field and even in the shadow in front of the haystack. By painting writhing lines of vermilion and orange outside the contours and beneath the cone of the haystack, he also suggested the way the slanting light of the hidden sun irradiates the space behind the haystack. The dark silhouette thus seems to vibrate and to fluctuate against the brilliant sky. Hokusai achieved similar optical effects through deploying lines of white snow that lie on or within the contours of his peak. In each case, the marks of the wood grain or the myriad marks of the brush emphasise the artifice of the image. Each artist has expressed his own vision of the deep structural forces of nature — and one senses a profound affinity between them.

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