Claude Monet's "Haystacks" series, a cornerstone of Impressionist art, is not just a stunning visual experience but also a profound exploration of color and light theory. Created between 1890 and 1891, this series of approximately 25 paintings is an artistic investigation into the transient effects of light and color on a seemingly mundane subject: haystacks in a field near Monet's home in Giverny, France.
Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer) - 1985.1103 - Art Institute of Chicago
Background: The Genesis of the Haystacks Series
The inception of the Haystacks series is as intriguing as the paintings themselves. The stacks belonged to Monet's farmer-neighbor, Monsieur Quéruel. Monet, captivated by the way light played on Quéruel's haystacks, initially asked his stepdaughter, Blanche Hoschedé, to bring him two canvases, one for sunny and one for overcast conditions. However, he quickly realized that two canvases were insufficient to capture the fleeting light and mood. Consequently, Blanche was soon transporting as many canvases as her wheelbarrow could carry.
Grainstacks, White Frost Effect, 1889. Oil on canvas. Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT.
Monet's daily routine evolved into carting paints, easels, and numerous unfinished canvases back and forth, working on the canvas that most closely matched the current scene as the light and conditions changed. While he began painting the stacks en plein air, Monet later refined his initial impressions in his studio, enhancing contrast and maintaining harmony within the series.
Monet produced numerous Haystacks paintings, with five (Wildenstein Index Numbers 1213–1217) painted during the 1888 harvest focusing primarily on stacks. His earlier landscapes had included stacks and hayricks in a secondary role. The consensus is that the canvases from the 1890 harvest (Wildenstein Index Number 1266–1290) constitute the Haystacks series proper, although some commentators include additional paintings when referencing this series.
Grainstacks, in Bright Sunlight, 1890, Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT
The Haystacks series marked one of Monet's earliest ventures in using repetition to illustrate nuances in perception across different times of day, seasons, and weather conditions. This concept of producing and exhibiting a series of paintings related by subject and viewpoint began in 1889 with his paintings of the Valley of the Creuse and continued throughout his career.
Light Theory in the Haystacks Series: Thematic Issues and Monet's Method
The underlying theme of the Haystacks series is the transience of light, which allowed Monet to use repetition to show nuances of perception as the time of day, the seasons, and the weather changed. The almost unvarying subject of the haystacks provided a constant against which changes in light and mood could be compared.
Haystacks, (Midday), 1890–91, National Gallery of Australia
Monet's method was meticulous and disciplined. He began the series in late September or early October 1890 and continued for about seven months. This dedication made him the first painter to produce such a large quantity of works differentiated by light, weather, atmosphere, and perspective.
Monet's focus on the Haystacks, along with other subjects like the Mornings on the Seine, Poplars, Rouen Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, and the Water Lilies, involved a rigorous routine. For the Early Mornings on the Seine series, he painted at and before dawn, finding the lighting simpler and more consistent. This required him to rise at 3:30 a.m., working on multiple paintings each day, each capturing a different aspect of light.
Grainstacks, 1890, Hasso Plattner Collection, on permanent loan at the Museum Barberini, Potsdam
As light changed throughout the morning, Monet would switch to sequentially later canvas settings, sometimes working on as many as ten or twelve paintings a day. This process was repeated over days, weeks, or months, depending on the weather and the progress of the paintings. With the changing seasons, the process was renewed.
Monet's study of light was so precise that certain effects, lasting only a few minutes, were captured in mere minutes each day. The light of subsequent sunrises could alter substantially, necessitating separate canvases within the series. Different hues in each painting, and the use of color to describe not only direct but also reflected light, show how stacks absorb light from different parts of the color spectrum, resulting in ever-changing reflections and distinctive coloring.
Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning, 1891. Oil on canvas. J. Paul Getty Museum
The Haystacks series was not only a critical success but also a financial triumph. Fifteen of these were exhibited by Durand-Ruel in May 1891, selling quickly, particularly to American collectors. Monet's intense study of light and atmospheric conditions, coupled with his perfectionism, is evident in this series. Despite his tendency to destroy paintings he found wanting, the Haystacks series escaped his harsh self-criticism.
Conclusion: The Legacy of the Haystacks Series
Monet's Haystacks series is more than a depiction of rural France; it is a groundbreaking exploration of the principles of color and light. These paintings challenge the viewer to see beyond the subject to the broader implications of perception and the ephemeral nature of light. Monet's work in this series laid the groundwork for modern art's exploration of color and light, influencing generations of artists to come.
Through the Haystacks, Monet teaches us to perceive the world differently and to appreciate the subtleties of light and color in our everyday surroundings. This series remains a testament to the enduring power of Impressionism and its revolutionary approach to seeing and depicting the world.