'Break-up of the ice on the Seine, near Bennecourt' c. 1892-93

Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Winter landscape

 

Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 65 x 100cm
Accession number: WAG 6133

This shows a wintry early morning view towards two of the narrow islands of trees at Bennecourt near Giverny on the River Seine.

By 1890 Monet complemented his on-the-spot Impressionist practice with extensive re-working in the studio. This resulted in many pictures with close-toned atmospheric harmonies. This is most famously evident in his Rouen Cathedral and haystack series, but can also be seen in this work.

Purchased in 1962 with the help of the V&A Purchase Grant Fund.

Impressionism

The landscape painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) was one of the principal members of a circle of French artists who from 1874 onwards were collectively known as 'Impressionists'. In April and May 1874 pictures by Monet and by other artists like Renoir, Cezanne, Sisley and Pissarro, were exhibited together in Paris. One of Monet's paintings was a misty view of the northern French port of Le Havre entitled Impression - Sunrise. A critic adapted this title to coin a name that described the whole group.

The pursuit of true light

Traditionally landscape painters had settled for a general approximation to a particular time of day or fall of light in their pictures. Until the 1830s nearly all landscapes were painted in the artist's studio, although sketches were often done out-doors. There were also certain conventions about composition and the use of dark shadow that many artists followed.

From about 1830 several landscape artists began to do more of their pictures out-of-doors and to use blonde, paler tones in an attempt to get closer to the specific and extremely varied appearance of real light shining on foliage or water. From the mid-1860s Monet and the Impressionists took this new direction further. Monet argued that all of a picture should be painted 'in front of the motif' and he was fond of declaring that he actually had no studio. He and his fellows were particularly attracted to the mundane bank-side landscape of the River Seine in the outer suburbs of Paris, where ordinary people came to swim or walk or boat on a Sunday afternoon-views which included lots of reflected light, few shadows and bright clear vistas.

Monet's practice

Monet's main break with previous painting practice was giving up the use of sombre earth colours like brown and black and abandoning the traditional dark under-painting on a canvas in which the picture's tonal structure was established. He tried to paint the bright clear colours of true nature - honestly, simply and unmediated by academic or conventional practices. Some other artists in the Impressionist circle thought Monet went too far - Degas, for instance, disliked the anti-intellectual implication of Monet's approach, suggesting that in this sense the artist was merely like a glorified camera.

Monet's solution to the problem of capturing the fleeting appearance of light was to paint quickly in large vigorous brushstrokes - rapidly capturing what he called the 'sensation'. This quasi-scientific term suggests that there was something objective about Monet's scrutiny and recording of the landscape before him but 'sensation' is a term that is uncomfortably incapable of clearer definition and when we look at Monet's pictures we marvel at his very distinctive, individual, idiosyncratic and lyrical rendering of what was before him. Monet did nature and, after a fashion, it is accurate but he also transmuted nature into the most beautiful art.

This picture was painted in 1893 and shows the River Seine - in northern France - near to Monet's home at Giverny. It is early morning or late afternoon and the time of year is probably February as the ice breaks up and flows downriver. It is assumed that most of the picture was painted on the spot and Monet may have been attracted to the view precisely because the ice on the water produced such a complex mix of colours.

Painting in series

This picture is one of a series of views of the frozen Seine painted during the particularly severe winter of 1892/93. Monet is on record as having complained about the bitter coldness while he worked. By this period Monet was increasingly painting pictures in series. He described how he first decided to take up this approach:

"When I began I was like the others; I believed that two canvases would suffice, one for grey weather and one for sun. At that time I was painting some haystacks that had excited me and that made a magnificent group, just two steps from here. One day, I saw that my lighting had changed. I said to my stepdaughter: "Go to the house, if you don't mind, and bring me another canvas!" She brought it to me, but a short time afterward it was again different:" Another! Still another!" And I worked on each one only when I had my effect, that's all. It's not very difficult to understand"

Despite the large amount of work done out-of-doors on the painting Monet also almost certainly did a substantial amount of fine-tuning of his colour in his studio. The surface of the picture is complex with long snaking strokes of pinky-lilac and green in the water and with Monet's distinctive diagonal tick-like strokes in the cloudy sky and high river-bank.