A lone stack of hay sitting in a mown field does not seem at first look to be a likely subject for great art.
I took the photo above at the side of a country road just outside the town of Fairland, a once prosperous farm community in northeastern Oklahoma. It’s as mundane an image as you can imagine in this once Native American land. Equally ordinary for the Norman farmers who were Claude Monet’s neighbors were the stacks of hay they raked into conical piles each autumn.
The fifteen paintings of “stacks of wheat” that Claude Monet exhibited at the Paris gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel on May 4, 1891, though, were immediately hailed as a significant breakthrough for the artist, one of the founders of the “Impressionism” art movement. This series, somber sentinels of grass in newly mown fields, were painted from stacks located almost outside the door of his two-acre farmhouse in Giverny. This work became the first in an ongoing series of paintings Monet was to execute during the next decade. The subjects included poplar trees located in a marsh just up the Epte River from his farmhouse; the west façade of Rouen Cathedral; the Houses of Parliament and Charing Cross Bridge in London; and late in life, large canvases of the water lilies in the pond on his own property.
Monet painted about thirty scenes of haystacks in all, but this group of fifteen (painted between the fall harvest of 1890 and March of 1891) was the first time he exhibited a number of them together. He had painted an earlier study from 1865 titled “Hayricks” but it is a more generalized landscape, not yet subject to the close examination of changing color, light and decay that became the focus of the 1890-91 series.
The haystack paintings are scattered in museums and collections all over the world. Even the Louvre in Paris has only one. But if you enter the Art Institute of Chicago, ascend the sky-lit main staircase, pass through the glass doors to the right and walk to the Post-Impressionist and Impressionist Galleries, you at last come to a south wall in Gallery 206. Six of the haystack paintings line this wall, five of them from the original group exhibited by Durand-Ruel. This is the largest concentration of this seminal series to be found anywhere; this is always the first stop I make when in Chicago and am able to rush over to the Art Institute. I will illustrate them in this essay, one at a time, in the order that I recall seeing them hanging, left to right.
These are not haystacks as we think of them today. The bales of hay that we all know are bound from grasses or from the remains of grain or wheat stalks, after threshing. The modern “combine” machine changed the whole concept of how wheat is harvested. Today, the wheat kernels are separated from stalks at the cutting stage. In Monet’s time in France, the wheat field was cut by hand, and then piled into conical stacks to dry until the wheat kernels could be threshed later in the year. Machines that did this rendering were not owned by individual farmers; threshers would make a circuit through the farm fields during autumn and winter, some places not being harvested until March. The dimensions of the stacks are deceptive; their height often exceeds fifteen feet. Since Monet never included animal or human figures in these paintings, the scale is difficult to judge.
Before the exhibition of the fifteen stacks even opened, ten of them had been sold. And it should be no surprise, given the richness of the Art Institute’s holdings, that nine of them were bought by Chicago collector Bertha Honoré Palmer. American collectors were intoxicated even then with French Impressionism and bought everything in sight, then sent the hoard back home. It is why American museums are so rich in paintings from this period. Monet’s fellow artist and friend, Camille Pissarro, initially demurred at the excess of enthusiasm voiced by critics and public alike. He felt that Monet had sold out to jejune American parvenus. But once he actually saw the work he said:
That the effect is both luminous and masterly is uncontestable. The colors are at once attractive and strong, the drawing beautiful… it is the work of a very great artist.
For this series and for many of the following ones, Monet developed a strict painting regimen. Earlier in his career he would go out into nature (plein air) and paint rapidly in the open light. It was the quick and evanescent “impression” that he was intent on capturing. Beginning with the haystacks series his vision turned more introspective.
It’s not that he worked any slower than earlier. But he would move from one canvas to another, as up to seven of them were lined up in the field; he was trying to capture the shifting nuances in color and texture of the morning or late afternoon light. He wrote:
I first of all believed that two canvasses would do, one for grey weather, one for the sun. One day I saw that the light had changed. I asked my step daughter [Blanche Hoschedé] to fetch another canvas, then another, still another. I worked on each one only when I had my effect.
Monet worked often from dawn’s first light until the last light of dusk, seeking the essence of how light transformed the humble forms of the stacks. He would then continue to refine the work in his home studio where he felt he could burrow into the essence of each canvas in unhurried contemplation. His friend the critic Gustave Geffroy wrote of this work:
The stacks… are a fulcrum for light and shadow; sun and shade circle about them in a steady pace; they reflect the final warmth, the last rays; they become enveloped in mist, sprinkled with rain, frozen in snow; they are in harmony with the distance, the earth and the sun.
Monet spoke about the “envelope of air” that surrounded the stacks, a kind of aura. There is a sense of anthropomorphism here as if the paintings were human portraits. In fact, it is not just color and light that fascinated Monet but also the changing character of the stacks in time. When you look at reproductions of the entire series this becomes evident. Shortly after harvesting, the conical stacks display a thrusting top, rising almost to a point. Over the weeks and months, with exposure to the elements, the tops become more rounded, settled; the cones droop, almost like a heavy human body hunkering down with age. Monet wrote about the near symbiosis he felt with individual stacks. In fact, he paid certain farmers not to harvest them at their appointed time so bonded he felt with individual “models.” Of course, he needed them to continue their “sitting.” But they must have seemed to be his daily companions as well. Isn’t it a bit axiomatic that the artist falls in love with his model?
I understand this sense of vigil Monet spoke of regarding the shifting shapes of nature. Early in my own career I spent four months hundreds of miles inside the Arctic Circle, north even of the village of Barrow, Alaska, on a children’s film for Disney Studios. In my spare time and when the weather co-operated I enjoyed walking north to the very tip of the peninsula to observe and photograph drift ice and small icebergs. Their morphing shapes from day to day, yet always recognizable, made me feel a sense of kinship in time that you can derive only when photographing something that “ages”.
Much critical study of Monet’s various series, especially of the haystacks and of the Rouen cathedral façade, focuses on the nature of the light, along with how colors and that light—incident, reflected, and refracted, contribute to the overall “character” of the painting. But the element of time is also present in the work and Monet spoke directly to it. As his study of the stacks became more intent, as the stacks themselves became more familiar as unique objects, he said that he felt:
more and more driven with the need to render ‘ce que je èpreuve’ [what I experience]. For me the landscape hardly exists at all as landscape, because its appearance is constantly changing… but it lives by virtue of its surroundings—the air and light.
Monet was forty-three when he first rented, then bought, the two-acre farm and house at Giverny, halfway between Paris and Rouen. His wife and sometimes model, Camille, had died on September 5, 1879, leaving him with two sons. Although Monet continued occasional travel to paint new series, his focus shifted later in life to the home, gardens and lily pond of the farm. The impermanence and shortness of life weighed on him as he struggled to maintain a household. The cycle of seasons and the dominion of the land became very real for him. The Haut-Normandie region of France was called the “breadbasket of Europe”; the fertility of the soil and its ability to rebound from sterile winter into the fecundity of spring and the harvest of autumn was a very human cycle. As he aged, Monet saw himself as part of this circle of life. The spirit of these humble stacks of wheat, seeming to wait patiently for their gift of food to be harvested, inheres in Monet’s paintings as well. The grand ranks of the stone blocks of Rouen Cathedral and of the Houses of Parliament, while seeming febrile in the changing light and air, remain stubbornly non-organic and lifeless, no matter how long the viewer studies them. But the soft muffins of the stacks of wheat have an aura that is part of the “envelope” of which Monet speaks. What can be more of a contrast as a subject for art than these stacks of hewn grass when compared to the soaring, indifferent totems of a congested city?
In a soaring flow of purple prose, a Dutch critic wrote of the effect these paintings had on him. At first he says he sought to escape their intense colors and textures that assault his sensibilities with:
Gaudy colors, these zigging lines, blues, yellows, greens, reds, browns, dancing a crazy sarabande on the canvas [but finally] irresistibly compelled by this medley of colors to recreate the artist’s vision.
The litany of erstwhile urban artists abandoning cities to rediscover themselves in the country is a lengthy one. Just recently, I wrote about that quintessential urban photographer of New York and Los Angeles streets, Garry Winogrand, who shortly before his death bought a large format view camera and talked about buying land overlooking the Hudson upriver from New York City. There is also Donald Judd, the hard-edged minimalist sculptor, who bought a tract of land near remote and arid Marfa, Texas, to house his own work. There is the example of David Smith, who learned his trade as a welder in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, then became a defining artist in steel just as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem DeKooning did on canvas. Smith moved his studio to upstate New York, and like Monet, lived and worked in near isolation, at Lake George. He “farmed” his land into a crop of transcendent sculptures.
Even more dramatic than Monet’s patient record of the change in organic matter (the stacks of wheat) is an intense record of decay that was made by Smith. He had long made photographs of his own work in the fields outside his studio near the village of Bolton Landing; the abstract steel sculptures nestled among the grasses of summer and they rose in stark silhouette against the snows of winter. But of all the photographs he made of his own work, it is the study of a decaying steer head on a steel tabletop that is the most anomalous and disturbing. I came across these pieces some years ago in a show of Smith’s photographs at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea. Graphic as they are, they are well within the painterly tradition of nature morte.
Though Monet does not seem to have painted dead animals, the momento mori this genre represents must have been very present in his mind as he trekked daily into the fields to paint the haystack series. Here is a short video clip from the Art Institute website that shows the slow decay of similarly shaped stacks when exposed to weather:
Monet lived to age 86; he is buried near his beloved farm and gardens in the Giverny churchyard. These last years were spent close to home. Cataracts and infirmity limited his outings to find new subjects, but late in life he did find an entire new universe in the light, color, and reflections of his ever-expanding gardens and lily pond. The Museum of Modern Art in New York currently hosts a small but beautiful show of several of these triumphant paintings, the apogee of an artist’s life spent in close examination of nature in all its myriad manifestations.