Monet’s 1890-1891 painting series Les Meules à Giverny captured haystacks at multiple times of the day, seasons, and weather conditions. He did this by painting several canvases at once, swapping them as the day changed.
Claude Monet had an obsession with colour. His paintings reflected the Impressionist desire to capture the effects of light and colour: the focus was not on the fine details but the immediate and the transient. Monet famously confessed to analysing even the colours on his dying wife’s face, as if by reflex.
Monet was part of a growing trend to paint outdoors (en plein air) – the English painter John Constable and the French Barbizon school were notable early adopters. Freed from the artist’s studio by the invention of paint tubes and portable easels, artists could try to capture the full effect of natural light and weather on landscapes and people. There was just one problem: natural light and weather changed.
Monet’s solution was ingenious: rather than working on a single painting at a time, he would begin multiple works based on the same subject. Each one focused on a specific time of day or quality of light. He would get up early (sometimes as early as 3:30am!), set up his easel, and start painting. As the sun rose and the light changed, he would swap out those early morning canvases for other unfinished pieces that focused on the same subject at midday, or evening, or in the snow, or in the mist. Sometimes he would work on a painting for only minutes each day, when the conditions were just right. He chased the changes in light, and in doing so, he captured sights that were rare and precious.
Probably most famous of these painting series was his Les Meules à Giverny, usually called in English Haystacks. The series was a huge artistic and commercial success, and the many paintings of haystacks are now spread across galleries and museums around the world. Monet made enough money to buy a house with a nice view of water lilies…