Women in the Garden (1866-7) by Claude
Women in the Garden (1866-7)
Acknowledged during his lifetime as one of the best artists of all time and the driving force behind French Impressionism, Claude Monet devoted his life to the study of plein air painting, and the momentary character of sunlight. Indeed, such was his devotion to outdoor painting that - given the huge size of this particular work - he had a trench dug in his garden so that the picture might be lowered into it, thus enabling him to paint the top section. At this time, his closest colleagues were Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Renoir (1841-1919) and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) - all of whom made exceptional contributions to Impressionist landscape painting during the 1870s.
Monet designed this painting as a major exhibit for the Salon of 1867. The Paris Salon was still at this time the place where artistic reputations were made, and no young painter could afford to ignore it. Previously, Monet had shown small works in the manner of his mentor Eugene Boudin (1824-98) as well as a full-length portrait of his wife Camille, but this painting, a very large-scale work more than eight feet tall, was clearly intended as a publicity work created in order to win commissions, and the size of the signature indicates that Monet wanted to fix his name in the mind of the public.
The picture, however, was rejected, which may not have surprised Monet unduly; since his time at Charles Gleyre's studio in Paris he had had little regard for academic art and its champions on the Salon Jury. Although the work might have appeared to conform to the pattern of figure composition that was acceptable to the French Academy it lacked one important element: the figures in the group lacked any dramatic relationship with each other, that is, there is no "story line" in the painting. At the time, this element was regarded as the raison d'etre of a painting, whether it was historical, literary, religious or social, but in Monet's work the people simply exist. Also they all look rather alike - which was hardly surprising, since his wife had posed for all of them.
But this was not the only reason for the rejection of the work. Monet's technique left much to be desired in terms of academic conventions. As in other early works Monet's handling of paint is close to that of Edouard Manet (1832-83), with the shapes of the figures, the shadows and the foliage clearly defined, and little range of tonal modelling. This approach may well have reminded the judges of the public scandals caused by Manet's work, first by the Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) (1862, Musee d'Orsay) displayed in the Salon des Refuses in 1863, and then by the equally offensive nude, Olympia (1863, Musee d'Orsay). Monet had intended originally to submit his own version of a "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe" in 1866, but failed to complete it in time, so Women in the Garden was his first major confrontation with the citadel of French painting.
The academic approach to painting was essentially one of building form by means of tone. The painting was typically built on a lightly coloured neutral ground, beginning with an underpainting of dark tones, usually brownish in hue. Onto this dark underpainting the highlights were added in white or near-white, and the local colour of the object or figure (its actual colour) was introduced into the middle-toned areas. This technique produced a strong sense of volume and solidity of form, but colour played a secondary role, being diminished or sometimes even lost in highly illuminated or deeply shadowed areas. The method used by Manet - the first great innovator of modern art - sometimes called peinture claire, was first - to determine colour areas through mid-tones; and then - to add highlights and darks into the wet paint, thus emphasizing shapes at the expense of form. This resulted in a strong colour pattern, reminiscent of the then-popular Japanese prints, and also gave more importance to colour itself, since the real colours of highlights and shadows could be given more consideration. (For more information and colour, see: Impressionist Edouard Manet.)
Monet went one step further in this painting, giving a clear colour identity to each shadow, such as that falling across the path and on to the dress of the seated figure. The resulting mauve-blue on the dress is one of the dominant colours in the work, and gives "uplift" to the tonal pattern. In the painting of the shrubbery there is a great variety of greens and yellows but no dark-toned shadows, and very little black is used, a colour Monet was soon to abandon altogether.
Compositionally the painting is divided into quarters, pivoting on the springing of the branches of the small tree - an almost central spot in the work. The top half of the painting, in deep tones almost entirely occupied by foliage, while three or four figures, static and preoccupied, are concentrated in the left lower quarter. The moving figure is lit from the right and this light, falling across both the path and the dress of the seated figure, also strikes the flowers she is holding. The second bunch of flowers and flowering shrubs provide a moving ellipse through the outstretched arm, the left-hand figure, the skirt of the seated figure and across the path, giving a touch of animation.
The whole effect of the painting was thus antipathetic to standard academic practice, and the Salon judges were the opposite of artistically adventurous. The rejection, although undoubtedly disappointing for Monet, in no way deflected him from his chosen course.
Grenouillere (1869) Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Beach at Trouville (1870) Wadsworth Atheneum, CT.
Sunrise (1873) Musee Marmottan-Monet, Paris.
Field (Argenteuil) (1873) Musee d'Orsay.
Saint-Lazare (1877) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Lilies series (1897-1926) various art galleries.
Water Lily Pond: Green Harmony (1899) Musee d'Orsay.
For the meaning of other Impressionist plein air paintings, see: Homepage.
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