Please note this work has been requested for the forthcoming Monet and his Places exhibition taking place at the Denver Art Museum, Denver, from October 2019 - February 2020 and at the Museum Barberini, Potsdam, from February - June 2020.
‘Zaandam is particularly remarkable and there is enough to paint here for a lifetime’ – Monet, in a latter to Camille Pissarro, dated 2nd June 1871; quoted in D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Biographie & Catalogue raisonné, vol. I, Lausanne, 1974, p. 427.
The twenty-four paintings that Claude Monet executed during his four-month sojourn to Holland during the summer of 1871 mark an important turning point in his artistic development. It was here, surrounded by the picturesque vistas of the Dutch countryside, with their wide, open skies and shimmering, reflective waterways, that the artist achieved a new understanding of the subtle, transient effects of light as it danced across the landscape, a development which would shape and define his art for years to come. These canvases, all focusing on motifs in and around the bustling town of Zaandam, illustrate many of the key features that would come to define Monet’s unique brand of impressionism over the course of the 1870s, from their dynamic play of rapid, energetic brushwork, to their light, airy palettes dominated by blues and greens, dusky pinks and purples. It was through these important transitionary compositions that Monet found the path which would lead to some of his most luminous, ground-breaking meditations on the ephemeral nature of light.
The Monet family embarked on their journey to Holland in May, travelling by boat from London, where they had taken refuge in the autumn of 1870 at the start of the Franco-Prussian War. Monet’s decision to delay the family’s return to France may have been as a result of the political instability which continued to plague Paris throughout 1871. From March to the end of May, the city had been besieged by the bloody insurrection of the Commune, which had pitched citizen against citizen, and resulted in the death of 20,000 people on the streets of Paris. Earlier plans to return home to France were discarded following the outbreak of the conflict, and so the artist and his young family made their way to Rotterdam instead. Monet may have chosen the Netherlands upon the suggestion of his friend Charles-François Daubigny, who spent some time working in the area during the same period, or the influential art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, whom he had come to know in London. Aware of the enduring appeal of Dutch scenes to French collectors, Durand-Ruel may have suggested the location as an avenue to more commercial subject matter.
Monet and his family arrived in Zaandam, a charming, rustic hamlet of 12,000 people not far from Amsterdam, at the beginning of June. This small town, filled with bustling waterways, picturesque windmills and brightly coloured houses that seemed to spring from the water itself, captured the artist’s imagination as soon as he arrived. While the journey from Rotterdam on the coast to Amsterdam was possible by train, the Monets had to take several ferries to reach Zaandam, changing at Haarlem and Uitgeest on route to the industrious town, bound by water on all sides. Monet was immediately captivated by the Dutch landscape, writing to Camille Pissarro on the 2nd of June: ‘We have finally arrived at the end of our journey… We traversed almost the whole length of Holland and, to be sure, what I saw of it seemed far more beautiful than it is said to be. Zaandam is particularly remarkable and there is enough to paint here for a lifetime’ (Monet, in a latter to Camille Pissarro, dated 2nd June 1871; quoted in D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Biographie & Catalogue raisonné, vol. I, Lausanne, 1974, p. 427).
As a foreign national living in exile from a country torn asunder by war and civil unrest, Monet was placed under surveillance by the local authorities upon his arrival in Zaandam. However, it soon became obvious that the artist was no subversive, with the town’s police commissioner reporting at the end of June that he mainly spent his days walking around the town, or occasionally rowing along the Zaan, visiting the typical tourist sites and picturesque areas of the region. Monet settled in the Hôtel de Beurs with his family, a simple inn a few yards from the Dam, in a room with tall windows and a balcony overlooking the harbour. Also installed at the Hôtel de Beurs were his fellow Frenchmen Henry Havard, an art critic, historian, and travel writer, and Henri Michel-Levy, a painter. Monet was pleased with the Hôtel and delighted by the range of artistic motifs that his new surroundings afforded; on June 17th he wrote to Pissarro again: ‘As far as we are concerned, we have very good accommodation here and shall remain for the summer; then I may go to Paris, but for the moment there is work to be done, this is a super place for painting, there are the most amusing things everywhere. Houses of all colours, hundreds of windmills and enchanting boats, extremely friendly Dutchmen who almost all speak French. Moreover, the weather is very fine, so that I have already started on a number of canvases…’ (Monet, quoted in ibid, pp. 427-428).
That Monet should have spoken so fondly of Zaandam is not surprising; the town was hailed among nineteenth-century travellers for its picturesque vistas and charming character. Henry Havard would later write at length about Zaandam and its surroundings in his 1876 publication, Amsterdam et Venise, describing the river Zaan as ‘the loveliest river one could hope to find. Wide, calm and full to the brim, it flows between two banks covered with trees and flowers, among which nestle a multitude of houses, belvederes, kiosks constructed of wood and painted in the most diverse and the strangest of colours. The tall trees and absurd houses are mirrored in the river, which also reflects the blue sky and its big white clouds. Picture this to yourself for a moment and you will fancy yourself instantly transported’ (H. Havard, quoted in Monet in Holland, exh. cat., Amsterdam, 1986, p. 31).
Monet’s sojourn in the small town proved to be incredibly fruitful, with the artist reporting in a letter to Pissarro shortly after his arrival that he was working in a white heat on new compositions. Indeed, he produced almost four times as many canvases during his short stay in the Netherlands, than he did during the nine months he spent in London. Monet focused his painting on four distinct regions in and around the town – the harbour near the Dam and its immediate surroundings, the canals to the north-west and the south east of the Dam, and the area north of the Dam along the Zaan. While the views appear quintessentially picturesque at first glance, on closer inspection they contain subtle indications of the industrial nature of the town and its bustling atmosphere. Zaandam had developed into an important industrial centre during the seventeenth century, and was home to shipyards, workshops and mills producing a wide variety of products. From oil to wood, corn to paper, mustard to paint, each windmill had its own particular function and name, and provided key employment for the local population, while the pretty canals and waterways that criss-crossed the region were an essential transportation network for these goods.
Captured in the fading light of dusk, as the last vestiges of sunlight cast the clouds into a colourful display of mauves, golden-hued yellows and dusky pinks, Le Dam à Zaandam, le soir focuses on a view familiar to the artist – the Dam at the centre of the town, just a stone’s throw from his base at the Hôtel de Beurs. Training his eye on the stillness and quiet of the waterway as the day draws to a close, the scene captures the inherent charm and serene atmosphere of Zaandam. Although Monet includes several boats docked along the quays for the evening, the only movement in the scene comes from the small, thin flags atop their masts which flutter gently in the light breeze that sweeps along the canal. The houses and public buildings that line the water’s edge, so prominent in other paintings from this summer, are cast in deep shadow, their bright colours subsumed by the encroaching darkness. The canal, meanwhile, is a study in the ever-changing character of the water. Smooth and glass-like in some spots, rippling and shifting in others with the reflections broken into a loose pattern of variegated brushstrokes, the lively surface illustrates Monet’s keen observation of the natural movement of the canal as it meanders through the town. This complex and nuanced analysis of reflected light illustrates the growing confidence of Monet’s technique during this time, as he introduced increasingly broken brushwork into his canvases, granting each stroke of pigment a sense of autonomy within the composition.
Although Monet’s paintings from Zaandam were never exhibited as a series, they represent one of the artist’s first sustained painting campaigns in a single location, a practice which would come to dominate his later career. As individual images they gained prompt critical acclaim when first shown in public, leading Eugène Boudin to proclaim ‘I believe that [Monet] is meant to take one of the leading places in our school…’ (Boudin quoted in Monet in Holland, exh. cat., Amsterdam, 1986-1987, p. 101). Durand-Ruel purchased a number of the Dutch landscapes between 1872 and 1873, while the artist selected three views from his time in the Netherlands to include in his first one-man show in March 1873. The present composition was purchased directly from the artist by the dealer Louis Latouche, an important supporter of Monet during this period of his career and an artist himself, who exhibited at the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874.