David Norman was for more than 30 years a senior specialist at Sotheby’s in Impressionist and Modern art. Here he discusses the long transition in market preference from classic works of Impressionism by Monet to the late, series works like the grainstacks, an example of which (above) is on offer at Christie’s next week. In the members area you’ll get a detailed look at the trajectory of prices over more than a century.
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An entry dated October 30, 1891 in the ledger book of Knoedler Gallery (a branch of the French dealers Goupil & Cie) lists that the once fabled gallery, seller to the great American collectors of the Gilded Age and several succeeding generations, bought for resale hot off Claude Monet’s easel a work titled in english, (Haystack) Last Ray of the Sun, a heavily encrusted painting depicting a monumental grainstack in the French countryside.
The grainstack (commonly, yet erroneously, referred to in Monet’s oeuvre as a haystack), a symbol of agrarian france, is made massive by its position in the extreme foreground of the painting; the horizontal canvas cannot even contain its proper left edge. The hulking pyramidal form has been modelled by a molten array of lavender, pinks, and rust reds with glimpses of blue and green underlayers. It’s crest wears a thin halo of lapis blue and the whole is backlit by the faint and fading peach-and-yellow glow of the setting sun over a progressively darkening ridge of blue-green mountains. Its is a study in closely arranged colors, so subtly varied that the edges of the grainstack softly meld into the ground upon which it sits.
When many artists are typically searching for a new direction in their art, Monet in mid-career devised one of the greatest innovations in painting of his era. During the 1890s, he conceived multiple bodies of works built around a single subject: such as a field of Grainstacks viewed over several seasons, the facade of Rouen Cathedral viewed over successive times of day, and a row of Poplar Trees backed by changing skies, and some years later he created series of cityscapes of the bridges of London and grand views of Venice under the envelope of different weather conditions and times of day. Of course, the notion of creating bodies of works conceived as a series reached its final peak with the great cycle of the Waterlillies. These series transcended the Impressionist concept that our visual world is not fixed by, but rather the product of, transient perceptions with no visual permanence. In each case, Monet used a singular subject purely for its abstract, formal qualities and as a visual record of the passage of time and environment.
The French public first stood in front of this work and 14 other canvases from the series at Paul Durand-Ruel’s eponymous gallery in 1891. The single theme exhibition was a shrewd marketing tool; and Durand-Ruel was one of the first to curate single artist selling exhibitions. Today, we can stand in front of it at Christie’s pre-sale exhibition for the Impressionist & Modern Art sale to be held on November 16th. (More available to AMMpro members.)