I remember when I first saw Claude Monet’s painting, “The Magpie.” It was on a greeting card that ended up in my possession many many years ago. I’ve loved it ever since.
In 2003, I was in Paris visiting the Musee d’Orsay. I rounded a corner and boom, there it was. I was blown over, first by the surprise of seeing it (I had no idea it was in this museum) and second, by its size. I was used to it as an 4 x 7 inch image but no, it’s a large painting! In 2009 I visited it again and here’s the photo I took. Unfortunately, the painting is covered by glass hence the reflections.
A Little Background History
Claude Monet (1840-1926) created this painting on location near Etretat, Normandy, a seaside town renowned then, and now, for its cliffs. Monet did paint the cliffs (I plan to do another blog comparing various artists rendering of them) but in this painting, he got out into the snowy countryside.
Although born in Paris, Monet’s family moved to the coastal town of Le Havre when Monet was five. He grew up there and eventually met the local landscape artist Eugene Boudin who introduced him to working outside on location. Thus began Monet’s love of working en plein air.
In 1859 he moved to Paris to study art. After a short stint in the military 1861-2 (relieved of duty due to health reasons) he went back to painting. In 1865, the twenty-five year old had two seascapes accepted into the Salon, a big deal for the young artist! He had work accepted the following year as well (his painting of Camille in “Woman in a Green Dress“) but in 1867, his work, “Women in the Garden” was rejected. Even with the earlier Salon success, Monet’s work was not selling and he was in dire straits financially. His father, never approving of Monet’s profession also disapproved vehemently of Monet’s lover Camille Doncieux (from a humble background and much younger than Monet) and refused to help them out. The couple had a son, Jean, in 1867, and Monet became so depressed by their circumstances that he attempted suicide, throwing himself off a bridge into the River Seine. Luckily for us, he was unsuccessful!
At this lowest point, in 1868, Monet attracted his first patron, ship owner Louis-Joachim Gaudibert, who commissioned the artist to paint three life-sized portraits. (You can see one of the amazing portraits here.) Finally, Monet was financially bouyant.
With Gaudibert’s help, Monet rented a house in Etretat where the family went in October 1868. While there, Monet painted many oils of the cliffs and also, unusually, this painting of a snowy landscape called “The Magpie.” Apparently the location where Monet painted this is unknown but perhaps a good guess would be that it was painted close to their rented house since it is likely Monet painted it on site.
So what is it about this painting that makes it so wonderful? For one thing, I remember when I saw it that I felt like the painting was lit from within, it’s that luminous! Even looking at this small image on the screen, I have the sensation of needing to squint my eyes. The low winter sun is outside the picture on the left. It illuminates what I take to be the sea in the background (rather than fields covered in snow), and creates the shadows from the wattle fencing that crosses the painting horizontally.
“The Magpie” is generally a high key painting punctuated by the few darks of visible fence, the gate, a few tree trunks, and the magpie. Take a look at it in black and white. You can see most of the painting looks very light or ‘high-key’.
Monet has captured a landscape heavy with snow, lit by a low winter sun. If you’ve ever experienced a heavy snowfall, you’ll know the muffled silence that comes with it. All is quiet. Nothing moves. Except perhaps for a magpie. Take out that magpie and the painting is still beautiful but the addition of the bird adds life, movement and momentariness (is that a word?) to the painting. Has the magpie just landed? Is it sitting still or moving head side to side? Is it about to fly away? Looking at what appears be the shadow of the bird on the ground, we see it isn’t an accurate shadow of the bird that sits there. This adds to the idea that the bird is in continuous motion and Monet captured two different moments.
You can see that without the magpie, our mind can’t decide which is the focal point – the gate or the dark trees and fence on the right. The addition of that wee magpie makes it very clear where the center of interest is located!
Design-wise, Monet also successfully breaks the painting in half via the top line of the fence cutting horizontally across the picture. He also has the focal point (the magpie) situated to the far left (no rule of thirds here!).
Snow is the dominant subject but what a range of colours Monet uses to depict its whiteness: yellows and reds, violets and blues. The warm colours of the buildings bring relief by contrasting with the coolness of the roof in shade and the blue fence shadows. It is one of the first instances that Monet used colour in the shadows, a way of painting associated with the Impressionist movement. Monet was out in nature and observing the colours he saw. Prior to this, the conventional way of painting shadows was to use black paint. (In comparison, look at Monet’s first snowscape, “A Cart on the Snowy Road at Honfleur,” done only about a year earlier. It’s primarily a black, grey and white painting – little colour to be seen.)
Let’s have a closer look at “The Magpie.” (The photos below are taken from a reproduction of “The Magpie” in the book Monet by Michael Howard hence the colour difference from the Musee d’Oray version. I did this because I couldn’t get detailed images from the Musee d’Orsay website.)
I think we all agree this is a pretty wonderful painting. So you may be surprised to learn that it was rejected by the Salon jury in 1869. (Note, the first Impressionist exhibition didn’t take place until April-May 1874.)
I hope you enjoyed this close look at “The Magpie”. Let me know YOUR thoughts on this painting.
Wishing you a marvellous 2015!! I look forward to your company on my artistic journey. Thanks for being here!
PS. Want to see a magpie? Click here.
PPS. A poem for you to celebrate the New Year. You may already know how much I appreciate the work of John O’Donohue.
by John O’Donohue
On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.
And when your eyes
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.