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Monet, Poplars

Claude Monet, Poplars, 1891, oil on canvas, 36-5/8 x 29-3/16 inches / 93 x 74.1 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Steven: According to a friend, Monet sometimes only had 7 minutes to work on a single canvas before the light changed too much and the effect that he was looking for was gone. Beth: This meant that he had to return, day after day, to catch that exact moment of light. Steven: This really speaks to Monet's hypersensitivity to specific effects of light and, especially in the early 90s, when he was working on his haystacks and on this poplar series. Monet is representing poplar trees near his house. He apparently painted these from a small rowboat. Beth: The rowboat was fitted especially with slats in the bottom so that he could bring many canvases along with him. Steven: That's exactly how he worked. In the paintings of Rouen, in the paintings of the haystacks, in the poplar series, Monet would paint on a series of canvases as the effects of light would change as the sun moved across the sky. He wasn't depicting what he knew of the poplar, the specificity of its leaf, what he knew of its bark. Instead, the atmosphere and the sun's light contributed to the form before him. That would shift radically as the day progressed. Beth: This is something that interested Monet from the very beginning of his career, the optical experience at any given moment, and being incredibly attuned to it, working to forget what he knew. Instead of trees, meadow, river, sky, these became shapes and colors. Steven: You have these 3 elegant poplars. They raise up, but their canopies are hidden from us above the frame, and below it we see the ground, with its own reflection, and the poplars reflected below that. My favorite part is the whiplash of the canopy of the trees in the background that have become so abstract, it takes a moment for us to recognize what they really are. Beth: They're pink, Beth: Their reflections are pink, and trees are not pink, but, on this windy autumn day, with bright sunlight, that's how they appeared to Monet. I think it's really interesting to think about him, on his boat in the river, and finding views of these poplar trees that he found very beautiful, and I can see why this view, in particular, appealed to him with that lovely arabesque that you referred to. Steven: Soon after Monet had begun the series, he found out that the man, who owned this land, had actually sold these trees to be cut down for wood. Monet paid the man who had bought them to hold off until the fall, so he could finish his series. Beth: That's also really characteristic of Monet. He wants to paint something out in nature, things happen, and he somehow stops the change. Because he's painting such a short moment of the light, he has to be able to paint it, over a considerable amount of time, and make sure the scene remains that way. Steven: Look at the surface. This is built-up paint. This is not something that he did in a flash, so there's a really interesting conflict between the heavily worked surface and his promise to us that this is the momentary. Beth: There's a real problem here. Steven: Yes. The surface is in pastel. It's built up. It's heavy. You can see now that they're paint strokes, but it's the strokes over the strokes, and this is characteristic not only of this canvas of the poplars, but of the entire series. In fact, of Monet's series in general, think about his haystacks, his images of Rouen Cathedral, the water lilies, these are paintings that represent the momentary that have been built up over time. Beth: What I find lovely about these late series paintings is a sense of poignancy, of a moment in time that exists only very briefly. We see through his eyes. Steven: I guess what I find astonishing is the intensity of the abstraction. This is a painting from the 1890s, and it seems to me to anticipate the work of the 20th century. (piano music playing)