De Wint is widely known for his expansive vistas of flat landscape
executed with a confident breadth of handling
Long revered as Monet’s most exquisite series, the Haystack paintings are remarkable for the range of light and weather conditions portrayed. In Haystacks, midday the edges of the stacks shimmer in the heat, and sunlight appears to radiate from the structures themselves. Elsewhere, in the snow scenes, the forms seem to absorb light. The practical nature of the stacks – a means of storing the harvest – receives less attention. When the sheaves of wheat or oats were cut, the cereal stacks were thatched with straw and left to stand until spring, and the arrival of the threshing machines that moved between villages. For a country still smarting from the effects of the Franco–Prussian war – and in a period when France seemed to be rapidly overtaken by industrialised Britain, Germany, the United States or even Russia – Monet’s choice of motif, like the series of poplar paintings that followed, was reassuringly French. The haystacks resonate with notions of rural productivity and the relative harmony of country life.
Monet spent extended periods travelling and painting picturesque locations in and around France in the late 1870s to the 1890s – from Vétheuil on the Seine to the coasts of Normandy and Brittany, then London, Venice, Norway and the Mediterranean. Between late 1888 and February 1891 he painted at least thirty canvases of haystacks, of which fifteen were shown in May 1891 at Durand-Ruel’s gallery.1This exhibition built on Monet’s growing success: despite comparatively high prices, most of the Haystacks sold, many of them to American collections where they remain. In October 1890 he could afford to buy the house at Giverny that he had rented since 1883. Ten years later, Monet bought an adjoining field and, from the early 1900s, extended his famous garden with its bridges and ponds of waterlilies (fig. 22, p. 43).
Pissarro wrote that Monet’s haystacks ‘breathed’ happiness, but at times the series caused the artist much anxiety.2 In October 1890 he complained about the difficulty of his work, especially his frustration at the time it took to capture instantaneous effects of light.3Haystacks, midday is certainly the result of a ‘long and continued effort’ with its layered paint and compositional changes indicating successive reworking in the field and in the studio. Monet gradually incorporated more and more colour – red–orange at the top of the stack, pink that flecks the stubblefield, touches of orange in the sky, shimmering yellow outlining the trees – until the whole surface of the canvas vibrates in the haze of the midday heat. His sensitivity to rapidly changing light, developed during three decades painting en plein air, as well as the initial haystack paintings made in the previous eighteen months, meant that he was able to extend the series under a greater range of conditions. Clearly it was the changing effects of light, an atmospheric enveloppe around the forms, rather than the stacks themselves, that fascinated the artist. There is a small piece of grass imbedded in the lower right edge of the canvas – perhaps it serves as a reminder of the practical function of haystacks.
1 Daniel Wildenstein, Monet, or, The triumph of Impressionism (catalogue raisonné), 4 vols, Cologne and Paris: Taschen and Wildenstein Institute, 1996, vol. 3, see cat. W1213–1217 for 1888–89 stacks, W1266–1273 for summer–autumn 1890 and W1274–1290 for 1890–91 winter stacks; the May 1891 exhibition comprised twenty-two works, of which fifteen were haystacks.
2 Camille Pissarro, letter to Lucien Pissarro, 5 May 1891, in Janine Bailly-Herzberg (ed.), Correspondance de Camille Pissaro, 5 vols, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1980–91, vol. 3, l. 658, p. 72.
3 Letter to Gustave Geffroy, 7 October 1890, no. 1076, Wildenstein, vol. III, p. 258.