Why Monet Painted The Same Haystacks 25 Times

In the nine­teen-twen­ties, as George Orwell remem­bers it, “Paris was invad­ed by such a swarm of artists, writ­ers, stu­dents, dilet­tan­ti, sight-seers, debauchees and plain idlers as the world has prob­a­bly nev­er seen. In some quar­ters of the town the so-called artists must actu­al­ly have out­num­bered the work­ing pop­u­la­tion.” Along stretch­es of the Seine, “it was almost impos­si­ble to pick one’s way between the sketch­ing-stools.” Legit­i­mate or oth­er­wise, these artists were gen­uine descen­dants of Claude Mon­et, at least in the sense that the lat­ter pio­neered paint­ing en plein air, dis­till­ing art direct­ly from the world all around him.

“When artists had to grind their own pig­ments or buy paints con­tained in frag­ile pig blad­ders,” says Evan “Nerd­writer” Puschak in the video essay above, “it was much eas­i­er to work in a stu­dio. The advent of tubes of paint, like these flex­i­ble zinc tubes invent­ed by John Rand in 1841, in which the paint would not dry out, enabled a porta­bil­i­ty that made out­door paint­ing easy and fea­si­ble.” As usu­al in moder­ni­ty, a devel­op­ment in tech­nol­o­gy enabled a devel­op­ment in cul­ture, but to show what kind of pos­si­bil­i­ties had been opened up took an artist of rare vision as well as rare brazen­ness: more specif­i­cal­ly, an artist like Mon­et.

“Obsessed, most of all, with light and col­or, and the ways they reg­is­ter in the human mind,” Mon­et “reject­ed the pop­u­lar con­ven­tions of his time, which pri­or­i­tized line, col­or, and blend­ed brush­strokes that con­cealed the artist’s hand in favor of sev­er­al short, thick appli­ca­tions of sol­id col­or placed side by side, large­ly unblend­ed.” His paint­ings, which we now cred­it with launch­ing the Impres­sion­ist move­ment, show us not so much col­ors as “col­or rela­tion­ships that seem to change and vibrate as your eye scans across the can­vas.” But then, so does real life, whose con­stant­ly chang­ing light ensures that “every few min­utes, we expe­ri­ence a sub­tly dif­fer­ent col­or palette.”

For Puschak, nowhere is Mon­et’s artis­tic enter­prise more clear­ly demon­strat­ed than in the so-called “Haystacks.” The series con­sists of 25 paint­ings depict­ing just what that name sug­gests (and which, belong­ing to Mon­et’s neigh­bor in Giverny, were well placed to catch his eye), each paint­ed at a dif­fer­ent time of day. Each image rep­re­sents Mon­et’s attempt to cap­ture the light col­ors just as he per­ceived them at a par­tic­u­lar moment, straight from nature. Tak­en togeth­er, they con­sti­tute “maybe the defin­i­tive expres­sion of the Impres­sion­ist move­ment” — as well as a reminder that, haystack or water lily, we nev­er tru­ly set eyes on the same thing twice.

You can now pur­chase a copy of the Nerd­writer’s new book, Escape into Mean­ing: Essays on Super­man, Pub­lic Bench­es, and Oth­er Obses­sions.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Monet’s Water Lilies: How World War I Inspired Mon­et to Paint His Final Mas­ter­pieces & Cre­ate “the World’s First Art Instal­la­tion”

How to Paint Water Lilies Like Mon­et in 14 Min­utes

Rare 1915 Film Shows Claude Mon­et at Work in His Famous Gar­den at Giverny

1923 Pho­to of Claude Mon­et Col­orized: See the Painter in the Same Col­or as His Paint­ings

1,540 Mon­et Paint­ings in a Two Hour Video

A Quick Six Minute Jour­ney Through Mod­ern Art: How You Get from Manet’s 1862 Paint­ing, “The Lun­cheon on the Grass,” to Jack­son Pol­lock 1950s Drip Paint­ings

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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