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: Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point


Patrick Noon



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
I have just experienced a spectacle more moving than any I have ever seen, the break up of the ice on the Seine. I have naturally tried to make a picture out of it, but the thaw has been so rapid I could only make a sketch.
—Claude Monet to Théodore Duret, January 8, 1880Claude Monet (1840-1926) is today recognized as one of the precursors of modern art. "Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point," an exhibition of 18 paintings, explores the events of a particular period early in his career, around 1880, that profoundly changed the course of his life and work.During the first Impressionist group exhibition of 1874, the Paris critics damaged Monet's reputation and livelihood by publicly condemning his sketchy painting technique. Mired in debt and shaken by self-doubt, the artist relocated his family in 1878 to the home of his friends Ernest and Alice Hoschedé in the rural village of Vétheuil on the river Seine northwest of Pairs. During the three years he spent there, Monet reassessed his professional goals and produced a series of extraordinary paintings.In the decade before he moved to Vétheuil, Monet was renowned for his modernity. Whether it was the diversions of the leisure class at the fashionable resorts on the Seine or the panorama of urban excess in the polished new boulevards of Paris, he concentrated on the themes of contemporary life. At Vétheuil, he would forever abandon these subjects in favor of pure landscape painting. Through the summer of 1879, as Monet painted numerous views of the little town and its environs under relatively ideal weather conditions, his wife, Camille, was suffering from cancer; she succumbed that September. One of the masterworks of this exhibition is her husband's poignant deathbed image of her.Compounding Monet's grief and further threatening his meager resources was the onset of the coldest winter in France in 50 years, which impeded his outdoor painting. The Seine began to freeze in early December, and by mid-month residents of Vétheuil were walking across the ice to the town of Lavacourt on the opposite shore. Early in the new year, temperatures suddenly rose, and the ice began to break up in Paris. A crushing torrent of ice floes and water raced downstream. Newspaper accounts described the alarming noise of barges and other debris splintering against the piers of stone bridges. The sudden thaw reached Vétheuil in the early hours of January 5, 1880, with equal intensity and destructive force. Riverside gardens disappeared, and a corpse was reported bobbing in the chilly waters. Challenged by this unique event, Monet began a series of paintings intended to record its every nuance.Painting outdoors, he worked on several canvases at once, but as he observed in his letter to the critic Théodore Duret, conditions changed so rapidly that he was able to produce only sketches. Known in French as the Débâcles, the paintings inspired by this thaw reflect Monet's fascination with both its devastating effects and the haunting poetry of the ice floes. The examples included in this exhibition are remarkably diverse in palette and brushwork. They range in mood from the austere and menacing to the seductively sublime. In every instance, they are boldly inventive exercises in painterly economy and acute observation. Technically innovative, they anticipate by several years the method Monet would employ regularly for his more celebrated Grainstack, Water Lilies, and Japanese Footbridge series, examples of which are also included in our show.Monet left Vétheuil in the autumn of 1881, eventually settling in Giverny with his future second wife, Alice Hoschedé. But during his brief sojourn in that rural village, he succeeded in reversing his critical fortunes, restructuring his domestic life, and launching an exciting new direction for his art.Patrick Noon is the Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings.The Monet exhibition was organized by The University of Michigan Museum of Art. Presentation of this exhibition at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is sponsored by Norwest and Dayton's.Related ImagesThe Ice Floes, 1880
Musée d'Orsay, ParisCamille Monet on her Deathbed, 1879
Musée d'Orsay, ParisPheasants and Lapwings, 1879
The Minneapolis Institute of ArtsVétheuil in Summer, 1879
Art Gallery of Ontario, TorontoThe Seine at Vétheuil, 1880
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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Source: Patrick Noon, "Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point," <i>Arts</i> 21, no. 6 (June 1998): 2-5.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009