The Magpie by Claude Monet

The Magpie by Claude Monet (1868)
The Magpie by Claude Monet (1868)

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

Étretat by Various artists

There are many subjects depicted by artists in their paintings which are the same.  One only has to think of religious paintings and the likes of the pietà or the deposition or even the crucifixion itself to see how numerous artists choose the same subject for their works of art.  It is also reasonably common for one artist to paint many versions of the same subject.  Think of how many times Vincent van Gogh painted his Sunflowers.  The last blog I did featured a painting of Bentheim Castle by Jacob van Ruisdael and I told you that he had actually painted the subject no fewer than fifteen times.  Today I am going to focus on geological structure that many artists have used in their paintings and I will let you compare them and see what you think.  First let me show you the location as you would see it today.

Cliffs and The Pinnacle at Étretat

The place is Étretat which is situated in the Haute-Normandie region of Northern France.  The town itself is about twenty miles north-east of Le Havre but it is not the town which claims the fame and which has always fascinated artists but its cliffs.  The single beach of Étretat is separated from the town by a sea-wall promenade and lies between two well-known cliffs.  To the east of the town lies the Amont Cliff and to the west lies the Aval cliff with its huge arch, Porte d’Aval,  cut through the chalk structure.   Slightly offshore of the Porte d’Aval stands the solitary needle rock known as L’Aiguille.    During the late nineteenth century this area of Normandy was very popular with Parisian families and with this popularity it soon became a very fashionable place to visit.

In 1868, Claude Monet lived at Étretat with Camille Doncieux,  whom he was to marry two years later.  He revisited the town on a number of occasions in the 1880’s so as to work on a number of paintings depicting the cliffs and sea.   Étretat had already been painted by both Delacroix and Courbet and in fact Monet owned a Delacroix watercolour of the area.. When Monet visited Étretat in 1883 he had planned to create his own Normandy seascapes, saying:

“I reckon on doing a big canvas on the cliff of Étretat, although it’s terribly audacious of me to do that after Courbet who did it so well, but I’ll try to do it differently.”

Because of the increasing popularity of the area with holidaymakers, Monet sensed that there would be a good market for paintings depicting this area. The area had everything, magnificent cliff structures from the top of which one had spectacular views of the sea, which sometimes had a mirror-like calm sheen about it, whilst on other times it exhibited a terrible unforgiving  ferocity as it crashed on to the foot of the cliffs, biting away at the base of the massive chalk structures

During the 1880s, Monet rediscovered the Normandy coast and visited the area many times so as to draw by the sea. He was fascinated by its dramatic cliffs and rock arches and was constantly looking for somewhere with outstanding natural beauty and a place where he could observe the effects of natural light on the sea and on the chalk and limestone cliffs.  He would move from one position to another continually looking for the best natural lighting of the cliffs and the sea. His search for the perfect light on the sea and the perfect position from where it could be seen was of paramount importance.  He once said:

“…I know that to really paint the sea it has to be seen every day at any hour and from the same spot to know its life at this very spot ; that’s why I’m repeating the same subjects up to four and even six times…”

Stormy Sea at Étretat by Claude Monet (1883)

In 1883 Monet completed a work entitled Stormy Sea in Étretat, which is now housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon.  The painting is set on a winter day and we can see is being whipped up by gale force winds.  It is believed that Monet worked on this painting as he sat at the window of his hotel room.  What a wonderful depiction of the ferocity of the sea with the white curls of the surf atop the waves.  In the foreground we have the beach on which we see five boats.  Three of which are filled with what looks like thatch whilst the other two on the right seemed to have been abandoned and show signs that they have had to endure a battering in the waves.  Two men, stand by the boats, looking out on the rough seas.  To the left we have the cliffs and the Porte d’Aval,  above which we have the storm and rain clouds rushing towards the land.

The Étretat Cliffs after the Storm by Gustave Courbet (1870)

The next painting I am featuring is one which depicts a similar view but is a work which depicts the time after a storm.  The title is La falaise d’Étretat après l’orage [The Etretat Cliffs after the Storm] and was completed by Gustave Courbet in 1870.  Courbet visited Étretat that summer and stayed in a house by the sea which was tucked against the Aval cliffs to the left of the bay.  He painted a number of versions of this scene but the one you see above is housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  Courbet like other artists was attracted to this area not only because of the breathtaking geological structures but because of the quality of natural light and the clarity of the air.  The composition of the sea, the land with its cliffs and rocks and the sky is well balanced.  Courbet had sent the painting for exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1870 where it was well received and Courbet’s reputation as a painter was enhanced.  Of the painting, the art critic and Courbet’s friend, Jules Antoine Castagnary, marvelled at the beauty of his friend’s work and described the elements of the work, speaking of:

 “…the free, joyous air which circulates in the canvas and envelops the details…”

Beach at Etretat by Eugène-Louis Boudin (1890)

Another artist to depict this area in his painting was Eugène-Louis Boudin who in 1890 completed his work entitled Beach at Étretat.  Here we are looking at the scene from a vantage point similar to the previous works.  On the beach we once again see abandoned fishing boats which have been ravaged by the wind and sea.  Sails can be seen hanging from mast boom, shredded by the ferocity of a previous storm and probably act as a warning to the men as they contemplate a return to the fishing grounds.  In the distance we can just make out a steamship passing westward.

Étretat, Laundresses on the Beach, Low Tide by Eugène Bourdin (1892)

Two years later in 1892, Boudin, a noted marine painter, completed a very interesting depicting the beach at Étretat entitled Etretat, Laundresses on the Beach, Low Tide which is held in a private collectionThe setting is the same but the tide has retreated into the distance.  We are left with the brown and green of the rocks which have briefly lost their watery covering.  The breathtaking rock structure of the cliffs is not the focus of our attention in this work.  Before us we have a large group of women who have come down to the beach to do their washing.  It is a veritable hive of activity.

The Manneporte near Étretat by Monet (1886)

For my final painting I am returning to one painted by Monet in 1886 of the Manneporte, a spectacular rock structure just to the west of Étretat and the Aval cliffs.   It is entitled Manneporte (Étretat) and can now be found in the Metroploitan Museum of Art in New York.   This was one of nearly twenty views of the beach at Étretat and the spectacular rock formations such as the Porte d’Aval, Porte d’Amont and the Manneporte which rise upwards on along the coastline that Monet painted. In this painting Monet has captured the way the sunlight strikes the Manneporte, this beautiful natural wonder.  The reason for Monet painting so many pictures of the same scene was that he wanted to capture the changing light at different times of the day and during differing weather conditions

The writer Guy de Maupassant wrote his eyewitness account of Monet at Étretat.

“…The artist walked along the beach, followed by children carrying five or six canvases representing the same subject at different times of the day and with different effects. He took them up and put them aside by turns according to changes in the sky and shadows…”

One can so well imagine that scene.