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November 9, 2022

Extraordinary Haystack Paintings by Claude Monet

Haystacks is the common English title for a series of impressionist paintings by Claude Monet. The principal subject of each painting in the series is stacks of harvested wheat (or possibly barley or oats: the original French title, Les Meules à Giverny, simply means The Stacks at Giverny). The title refers primarily to a twenty-five canvas series which Monet began near the end of the summer of 1890 and continued through the following spring, though Monet also produced five earlier paintings using this same stack subject. The series is famous for the way in which Monet repeated the same subject to show the differing light and atmosphere at different times of day, across the seasons and in many types of weather.

Monet settled in Giverny in 1883. Most of his paintings from 1883 until his death 40 years later were of scenes within 3 kilometers (2 mi) of his home and gardens. Monet was intensely aware of and fascinated by the visual nuances of the region’s landscape and by the endless variations in the days and in the seasons—the stacks were just outside his door.

The stacks depicted in the series are commonly referred to in English as hay, wheat or grain-stacks. In reality they stored sheafs of grain primarily for bread—so wheat—and not hay, an animal food. The 10-to-20-foot (3.0 to 6.1 m) stacks were a way of keeping the sheafs dry until the grain could be separated from the stalks by threshing. The shapes of stacks were regional: in Normandy, where Giverny is situated, it was common for them to be round with quite steeply-pitched thatched 'roofs'—just as Monet painted.

The stacks belonged to Monet’s farmer-neighbor, Monsieur Quéruel. Noticing the way the light changed on M. Quéruel’s stacks, Monet asked his stepdaughter, Blanche Hoschedé, to bring him two canvases, one for sunny and one for overcast conditions. But Monet soon found he could not catch the ever-changing light and mood on merely two canvases: as a result, his willing helper was quickly bringing as many canvases as her wheelbarrow could hold. Monet’s daily routine therefore came to involve carting paints, easels and many unfinished canvases back and forth, working on whichever canvas most closely resembled the scene of the moment as the conditions and light fluctuated. Although he began painting the stacks en plein air, Monet later revised his initial impressions in his studio, both to generate contrast and to preserve the harmony within the series.

Monet produced numerous Haystacks paintings. He painted five paintings (Wildenstein Index Numbers 1213–1217) with stacks as his primary subject during the 1888 harvest. His earlier landscapes (Wildenstein Index Number 900–995, 1073) had included stacks in an ancillary manner. The general consensus is that only the canvases produced using the 1890 harvest (Wildenstein Index Number 1266–1290) comprise the Haystacks series proper. However some commentators include additional paintings when referencing this series.

Monet’s Haystacks series is one of his earliest to rely on repetition to illustrate nuances in his perception across natural variations such as times of day, seasons, and types of weather. For Monet, the concept of producing and exhibiting a series of paintings related by subject and vantage point began in 1889, with at least ten paintings done at the Valley of the Creuse, and subsequently shown at the Galerie Georges Petit. This interest in the serial motif would continue for the rest of his career.


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