The Allure of the Haystacks Paintings by Claude Monet

Artwork(s) In Focus, Art History

March 8, 2021

Founder of the Impressionism art movement in the 19th century, Claude Monet is known for returning to a particular subject over and over again, fascinated by how one scene could change so drastically under different lights. In these series of works, the artist captured the changing colors of the same subject matter at different times of the day, under various weather conditions, in changing seasons and under different lights.

Claude Monet's Haystacks, the first of his series of paintings created throughout the months of 1890–91, typified his work and illustrated his mastery of light and color.

This wasn't the first time Monet had included the subject in his work, although he hadn't as the principle subject. Yet, the experts now agree that the definitive Haystacks series includes only paintings from 1890/91. Although Monet’s intention to show the entire series of 25 canvases together, they have long been separated, being housed in museums and private collections around the world.

Claude Monet - Grainstacks, in Bright Sunlight, 1890. Oil on canvas, 23 x 38 in. (58.4 x 96.5 cm). Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT

Working in Series

In the 1880s, Claude Monet first began working in series, continuing this practice until the end of his life in 1926. Among his famous recurring subjects are haystacks, poplar trees, Rouen Cathedral and water lilies. Starting in front of his subject, he would spend many long hours reworking them in his studio. He once wrote:

The further I go, the better I see that it takes a great deal of work to succeed in rendering what I want to render: "instantaneity," above all the enveloppe, the same light spread over everything, and I'm more than ever disgusted at things that come easily, at the first attempt. 

Moving away from capturing the visual effects of light and weather by painting quickly and directly out of doors, Monet began pursuing the most ephemeral effects slowly and with deliberation, placing great importance on color, texture and the moods. He also sought to unify works in his multi-canvas series, bringing them into a unified whole. The Haystacks series is one of his earliest to rely on repetition to illustrate nuances in his perception across natural environmental variations.

Claude Monet - Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun), 1891. Oil on canvas, 65 x 92 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Claude Monet - Haystacks Paintings

Although the harvest haystacks were ubiquitous in areas of France, Monet chose the subject after careful consideration, realizing that its simple shape served as the perfect vehicle for reaching his impressionistic objectives of showing a common subject against a wide variety of different seasonal, climatic and time-settings. He was intrigued by the way different seasons and positions gave different color balances on the same object, attempting to catch it on canvas.

After the summer harvest, the locals used straw or hay as a thatched "roof" for the stack, shielding the wheat, barley or oats from the elements until, once dry-enough, they could be separated from the stalks. Traveling from village to village, it often took until the following spring or even later for all the stacks to be reached by the threshing-machines. This made the stacks the perfect subject, as they would stay throughout all the light and atmosphere changes of summer, autumn, winter and spring. The shape of the stacks that could be seen in Monet's works, round with quite steeply-pitched thatched 'roofs', was typical of Normandy, where Giverny is situated.

The haystacks already appeared as a motif in several of Monet's earlier canvases, such as the ones produced in 1888 and 1889 - Grainstacks at Giverny, sunset, Grainstacks, White Frost Effect and Grainstack at Giverny. However, these are not regarded as part of the series. Created throughout 1980, from late September or early October and over the next seven months into 1891, the Haystacks series covered a full harvest season, allowing the artist to focus on as many aspects of the environment and its effects on his subject as possible. He was particularly interested in the overall color harmonies that allowed him an autonomous use of rich color.

Monet would be working with several canvases at once, due to the quickly changing scene, transporting them alongside paints and easels back and forth to site of the haystack. He would choose the one that most corresponded with the current conditions, then substitute it with another one after the conditions changed. He worked on as many as ten or twelve paintings a day, each one depicting a slightly different aspect of light, sometimes taking only a few minutes for the light and the atmosphere to change. In search of harmonious transitions within the series, he would continue altering the canvases back in his studio. He once explained:

For me landscape hardly exists at all as landscape because it's appearance is constantly changing, but it lives by virtue of the surroundings, the air and light which vary continually... 

Focusing on just one haystack allowed Monet to experiment with different compositions and go into far greater detail as to the effect of the distribution of light over the object. The painter was particularly interested in sunsets and sunrises which gave him a whole new palette of colors. On the other hand, winter offered an alternative color scheme.

Although a haystack is a mundane motif in each of the works, the transience of light can be seen as an underlying theme. In each of the works, there are different hues as stacks absorbed the light from diverse parts of the color spectrum, describing not only direct but also reflected light.

Claude Monet - Grainstacks, 1890. Oil on canvas, 72.7 cm (28.6 in) x 92.6 cm (36.4 in). Hasso Plattner Collection, on permanent loan at the Museum Barberini, Potsdam

The Success of the Impressionist Painting Series

Claude Monet insisted that the works should be seen together, so the Haystacks was the first series he ever exhibited. Fifteen canvases were shown in 1891 at the Galerie Durand-Ruel. Due to their distinct subject matter and the exhibiting concept, the series immediately received a positive attention from both the critics and the public, becoming an important breakthrough in the artist's career, but also for the Impressionism. It distinguished Monet from other artists within the movement as someone who would spend extraordinary amounts of time studying the same set of objects in great detail.

Octave Mirbeau, a French novelist, art critic, travel writer, pamphleteer, journalist, and playwright, described the series as representing "what lies beyond progress itself." Some described the stacks as "faces of the landscape", while Camille Pissarro commented that the canvases "breathe contentment".

Most of the paintings sold immediately for as much as 1,000 francs, and soon, the artist's prices, in general, began to rise steeply. After years of mere subsistence living, he was finally able to enjoy success. This resulted in him buying the house and grounds at Giverny which he turned into an idyllic inspiration and open-air studio behind some of the world’s most famous paintings, but also a total work of art in its own right.

The series itself served as an inspiration for generations of artists, including Les Fauves, Derain, and Vlaminck. In his memoirs, Kandinsky wrote: "What suddenly became clear to me was the unsuspected power of the palette, which I had not understood before and which surpassed my wildest dreams."

On May 14, 2019, a privately held work from this series, Grainstacks from 1890, was sold for $110.7 million at Sotheby's, setting a record for a Monet work and becoming the first impressionist work to surpass $100 million. It was first acquired by wealthy Chicago socialites directly from Monet’s dealer in the 1890s and remained in the family until it was bought at auction in 1986 by the latest sellers for $2.53 million. Now bought by Hasso Plattner, the work has been on display at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam since September 2020. It is one of only four works to have come up for auction this century.

While Monet's wish was for the works to be shown as a series, today the canvases are scattered in museums all around the world. The largest Haystacks collections are held at the Musée d'Orsay and Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, and in the Art Institute of Chicago. Other collections include the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, and the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris. The Art Institute of Chicago collection includes six of the twenty-five Haystacks. Other museums that hold parts of the series include the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut (which also has one of five from the earlier 1888–89 harvest), the Scottish National Gallery, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Kunsthaus Zürich, Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Shelburne Museum, Vermont. The rest of the series is held in private collections.

Editors’ Tip: Monet. The Triumph of Impressionism

No other artist, apart from J. M. W. Turner, tried as hard as Claude Monet (1840–1926) to capture light itself on canvas. Of all the Impressionists, it was the man Cézanne called “only an eye, but my God what an eye!” who stayed true to the principle of absolute fidelity to the visual sensation, painting directly from the object. It could be said that Monet reinvented the possibilities of color. Whether it was through his early interest in Japanese prints, his time as a conscript in the dazzling light of Algeria, or his personal acquaintance with the major painters of the late 19th century, the work Monet produced throughout his long life would change forever the way we perceive both the natural world and its attendant phenomena. The high point of his explorations was the late series of water lilies, painted in his own garden at Giverny, which, in their approach toward almost total formlessness, are really the origin of abstract art. This biography does full justice to this most remarkable and profoundly influential artist, and offers numerous reproductions and archive photos alongside a detailed and insightful commentary.

Featured image: Claude Monet - Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer), 1890 -1891. Oil on canvas, 60 x 100 cm (23 5-8 x 39 3-8 in). The Art Institute of Chicago. All images via Creative Commons.

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