In 1886, the year that Monet painted this lively view over the farmhouses and fields of Giverny, the tensions that had been mounting within the Impressionist group since early in the decade came to a climax. Pissarro, newly won over to the divisionist technique of Seurat and Signac, invited them to contribute to the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition; when the show opened in mid-May, a whole room was given over to their new avant-garde idiom, which represented a direct assault on the essential premises of Impressionism. Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Caillebotte all refused to participate in the exhibition, which would be the Impressionist group’s last. Aesthetic differences and personality conflicts were paramount, but there was also a controversy over whether artists with dealer backing—Monet had recently joined forces with Georges Petit—were truly indépendant. Finally, just weeks before the exhibition opened, the Impressionists’ former ally Zola published his latest book L’Oeuvre, a scathing portrait of a failed artistic genius, the fictional Claude Lantier, which struck Monet and his colleagues as an intensely personal attack.
Throughout this tumultuous period, Monet remained a dedicated proponent of Impressionism, committed to the primacy of nature and to conveying his sensations before the motif. “I am still an Impressionist,” he declared, “and will always remain one” (quoted in Monet in the ’90s, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, p. 20). In the present painting, however, he came as close as he ever would to a Post-Impressionist interpretation of the landscape, transmuting the forms of the natural world into an abstract order. More characteristic of Cézanne than Monet, Vue du village de Giverny is first and foremost a carefully composed patchwork of formal elements—different shapes, colors, and textures—that takes priority over the depiction of a particular place under specific conditions of weather and light. Rather than a panoramic landscape in the conventional sense, the painting represents a constructive transformation of a corner of the countryside, seemingly viewed at close range and excerpted from a larger whole.
To find the motif for this painting, Monet did not have to venture far from home. He set up his easel on a hillside northeast of rural Giverny’s tiny town center, a few minutes’ walk from the house where he had lived since April 1883 with his future wife Alice Hoschedé and their combined eight children. Looking southeast over the plain of Essarts, he could see all the way to the distant hills around Bennecourt, some eight kilometers from Giverny following the line of the Seine upstream. In the foreground of the painting is the Ferme de la Côte, which belonged to the proprietors of the Hôtel Baudy, a popular lodging spot for the American artists who flocked to Giverny in the late 1880s and 1890s. At the far left, immediately beyond the first stand of trees, are the houses and farm buildings that clustered together on land known locally as Le Pressoir (“the cider press”), Monet’s own home among them.
During the first five years that he lived at Giverny, Monet tirelessly explored the surrounding terrain, setting out with his canvases each day at dawn, walking over hills and through valleys, in marshes and meadows, among streams and poplars. He painted the Seine and its burbling tributary the Epte, winding country roads and houses nestled into the rolling hills, and vast fields that stretch from one edge of the canvas to the other, offering tangible evidence of the land’s fertility and abundance. “This was the landscape he came to know most intimately,” James Wood has written, “and its accessibility made possible the extended serial treatment that is the underlying structure for the work of the entire Giverny period” (Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1978, p. 11).
Several months before he painted the present Vue du village, Monet had depicted the same motif under snow, selecting a more traditional vantage point that showed the houses of the Ferme de la Côte and Le Pressoir sitting stably on the land (Wildenstein, no. 1055). Now, by contrast, he climbed higher on the hillside and looked down at a steeper angle. The foreground of the present painting is given over entirely to a dense jumble of rooftops and the upper portion of walls, rendered as a network of intersecting edges and forms described with short, parallel touches of red, pink, and gray. Before these resolve into tangible structures, they appear to the eye as abstract blocks of color and texture, free of any external referent. The landscape, in turn, is distilled into a series of horizontal bands, rendered in complementary, cool tones. In the middle ground, clusters of vigorous vertical and diagonal strokes denoting wooded areas are punctuated with flat patches of yellow-green for fields; the distant hills appear as a ribbon of blue, painted in long, sloping streaks beneath a strip of lavender-gray sky.
With its intensely green and lush vegetation, Vue du village appears to be a late spring or a summer scene, painted after Monet’s return from a brief working trip to Holland during the 1886 tulip season (Wildenstein, nos. 1067-1071). Although the artist’s letters are characteristically taciturn on the subject, the painted evidence from this period suggests that the future of Impressionism weighed heavily on his mind. He produced two plein air portraits of Suzanne Hoschedé holding a parasol—his first large-scale figure paintings in over a decade—that represent a quintessentially Impressionist rejoinder to Seurat’s divisionist manifesto, La Grande Jatte. He also painted his first self-portrait ever, a haunting, deeply introspective image that bears testament to the magnitude of the moment (Wildenstein, nos. 1076-1078). “In 1886, he must have realized that he was truly on his own,” Paul Tucker has written, “and that if Impressionism was going to continue to be a viable style equal to the likes of Seurat’s pseudo-scientific method, it was up to him to prove it” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1989, p. 127).