Being in a much milder, wetter and windy climate it is always a novelty to see snow except atop distant mountains and for those of you are knee-deep in it, you have my sympathy, as I tend to agree with those who say snow is fine when viewed on a greetings card but not when one has to trudge through it. However there is nothing as beautiful as a painted snow scene and for My Daily Art Display featured painting today I am featuring a beautiful depiction of a snow scene by Claude Monet entitled The Magpie, which is reputed to be one of the most popular paintings in the Musée d’Orsay collection.
Monet painted this work during the winter of 1868-9 whilst he was living at Étretat with his wife Camille and his one-year old son Jean. He had left Paris and one of the reasons for his departure from the capital was given by him in a letter to his artist friend, Frederic Bazille:
“…In Paris one is too preoccupied with what one sees and hears, however strong-minded one may be, and what I shall do here will at least have the virtue of being unlike anyone else’s work, because it will simply be the expression of my personal experiences…”
Monet had been going through a very tough and trying period in his life. Although his painting Woman in Green was exhibited in the 1866 Salon his offering of Women in the Garden the following year was rejected by the jury of the Salon. None of the pictures he sent in the spring to the International Maritime Exhibition at Le Havre were sold and worse still, the canvases were seized by his creditors. His lover, Camille Doncieux, whom he had met in 1865, had become pregnant and in August 1867 gave birth to their son, Jean-Armand-Claude. Although his father had finally and reluctantly come around to his son’s chosen profession as an artist, he was totally against his son’s liaison with Camille and told him that he would only offer him financial help if he left Camille. Monet’s financial situation in Paris had become dire and he survived on hand-outs from his friends. His money problems and now the impending arrival of his child, which was yet another mouth to feed, were so bad that in 1868 he had attempted suicide by throwing himself off a bridge into the River Seine. Penniless, Monet was forced to return home alone to his father’s house in Sainte-Adresse, a small coastal town west of Le Havre, and there he lived with his aunt, abandoning Camille in Paris. To add to all these financial and family problems he suffered partial loss of his sight in July 1867 which prevented him from painting and sketching out of doors.
His luck finally changed in 1868 when he fortuitously received some timely aid from his very first patron, a shipowner and art collector, Louis-Joachim Gaudibert, who supported him by commissioning him to paint three full-length life-sized portraits. Two were of Guadibert himself and the third one of his wife, (Portrait of Madame Gaudibert). He also managed to sell his painting Camille to Arsène Houssaye, the editor of the magazine L’Artiste, for 800 francs. Now, finally, with some money in his pocket he was able to return to Paris to once again be with Camille. Gaudibert also helped Monet rent a house in Étretat for his family in late 1868. Recovering from an episode of depression, Monet joined Camille Doncieux and Jean at the house in Étretat in October 1868. He wrote to Bazille about his change of fortune:
“…Thanks to this gentleman of Le Havre who’s been helping me out, I’m enjoying the most perfect peace and quiet and I look forward to do some worthwhile things…”
It was whilst he lived here that Monet painted the many famous scenes of the cliffs at Étretat and it was in December 1868 that he painted today’s featured work, The Magpie. Although en plein air painting may be a joy in the sunny warm days of summer, it becomes a challenge in the cold harsh winter days but Monet was not deterred by this and never let the elements confine him to working indoors. In fact he often claimed that he preferred the countryside in winter. Monet loved to experience the differing effects light had on the countryside and for him the understated difference of shadows upon the snow covered ground presented him with a different challenge from the sun on green grass and blue water. It would mean a complete change of palette with more emphasis on the whites, greys and violets. He wrote to Frederic Bazille extolling the virtues of his surroundings and the freedom to paint en plein air:
“…I spend my time out in the open, on the shingle beach when the weather is bad or the fishing boats go out, or I go into the countryside which is very beautiful here, that I find perhaps still more charming in winter than in summer and, naturally I work all the time, and I believe that this year I am going to do some serious things…”
Before us we have Monet’s oil on canvas winter landscape scenes of the countryside close to Étretat. It is entitled La Pie (The Magpie). It is a prime example of the natural effet de neige (effect of snow). It was one of the earlier snowscapes that Monet painted. In all he completed over hundred snowscape paintings. The snow lies upon the ground. A solitary magpie perches on the top rung of a wooden hurdle gate. Its black and white feathers, along with the dark bark of the trees, contrast starkly against the snowy landscape and, despite the small size of the bird, it become the focus of the work. Its inclusion in the scene in some ways breathes life into the painting. The source of light comes from the background and dramatically creates blueish gray shadows of the wattle fencing on the pristine snow in the foreground. Monet and the Impressionists, instead of making the shadows in their paintings a conventional black, preferred to use coloured shadows as they believed that adding colour represented the actual, changing conditions of light and shadow as one would see in nature. However this idea did not set well with the Salon jurists and this work by Monet was rejected when he submitted it for exhibition at the 1869 Salon. There is a beautiful luminosity about this work. In summery paintings the sky would normally be lighter in colour and tone in comparison to the ground colour but of course in winter this all changes and as we see in this work the sky is darker than the snow-covered ground. Look at the way Monet has depicted the snow. It is not pure white but more a tinted white and where the shadows straddle the snow-covered ground in the foreground we have patches of gray-blue. We can also see darker spots in the snow of the foreground indicating that the snow is not as deep here and the ground below it is showing through the whiteness.
The painting is considered by art historians as one of Monet’s best and most accomplished snowscapes. Monet once revealed that he wanted to paint not things in themselves but the air that touched things – the enveloping air. I will leave you with a quote from a Harper’s Magazine article entitled The Enveloping Air in which the author John Berger wrote:
“… Monet once revealed that he wanted to paint not things in themselves but the air that touched things – the enveloping air. The enveloping air offers continuity and infinite expansion. If Monet can paint the air, he can follow it like following a thought. Except the air operates wordlessly and when painted, is visibly present only in colours, touches, layers, palimpsest, shades, caresses, scratches……… Like many innovative artists, Monet, I believe, was unclear about what he had achieved. Or, to be more precise, he could not name his achievement. He could only recognize it intuitively