Poet of Light: Claude Monet and his “Haystack Series”

Claude Monet (1840-1926)

The great Impressionist artist, Claude Monet is best-known for his series of water lily paintings executed between 1897 and his death in 1926. But about a decade before Monet painted his first water lily picture, there were “The Haystacks”, a series of unassuming pictures he painted that opened the door to the modern abstract art movement. In choosing the humble haystack as his motif, Monet was in fact sharing his fascination with the effects of the ever-changing daylight on a subject, what he called “instantaneity – the same light spread over everything.”

To be sure, Monet was not the first to use the haystack as a painting motif. Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75) had done so in the 1870s, toward the end of his life. But Millet was still working within a tradition where the focus in a picture was a story, told by landscape, people, and animals. Monet, on the other hand, was singularly interested in the play of light and color on the subject. Thus, whereas Millet’s haystacks might have included such picturesque elements as a human presence or a flock of sheep. Monet deliberately simplified the picture to the point where the background houses and hills are barely discernible, narrowing the viewer’s focus to the grain stacks themselves, to convey the spectacle of light on an otherwise mundane object. He would do this over the four seasons, patiently watching the seasons turn, and the light with them that brought different nuances to the subject. Even in winter months, his family recalled that he would awake at 3 o’clock in the morning and brave the cold in order to paint the scenery before any workers arrived. In fact, a portion of his haystack paintings is dedicated to studies of frost, mist, and snow. In these works, Monet used wistful pastel colours to cast a simple sky, against which the stacks themselves appear vivid, bold and pointed. And in the heat of summer, he would use mottled dots of yellows, reds and purples to paint pictures of silhouetted stacks atop saturated background. To think that given such a narrow focus, these paintings might not only sustain the viewer’s attention, but also create an epiphany was a gamble that Monet took. And it worked!

This was immediately apparent to all who saw Monet’s experimental paintings at the gallery of art dealer Durand-Ruel in May 1891. The reviews were unanimous in their praise, and Monet’s peers were equally astounded. Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), who was initially critical of Monet’s experiment, was converted. Even more astonished was Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), one of the pioneers of modern abstract Western art. As he wrote in his memoirs, “What suddenly became clear to me was the unsuspected power of the palette, which I had not understood before.” Above all, visitors to this historic show were struck by the effect of the whole series of paintings rather than any single painting. Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), on seeing Monet’s haystack series, declared that Monet had “the only eye and the only hand to follow a sunset in its every transparency and express its nuances on the canvas at one go without returning to it.”

From then now, the serial method would come to dominate Monet’s output, culminating in his water lilies paintings of 1897 to 1926, where the play of light and color on plant and pond would be captured to glorious effects.

Selected Works from Monet’s Haystack Series

“The light constantly changes, and that alters the atmosphere and beauty of things every minute.”

~ Claude Monet

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