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Claude Monet was a key figure in the Impressionist movement that transformed European painting in the second half of the nineteenth century. Lavacourt under Snow is a stunning example of how Monet rendered the world he saw around him in paint. It demonstrates many of his key concerns – his keen observation of the natural world, his exploration of the interplay of light, shadow and colour, and his practice of working outdoors.
Lavacourt under Snow was painted when Monet lived at Vétheuil, on the River Seine northwest of Paris. Claude Monet, his wife Camille and their two children moved from Argenteuil to Vétheuil in April 1878. Lavacourt is a village on the opposite bank of the river from the town, but for many years the painting was known as Vétheuil: Sunshine and Snow.
This time marked a period of change in Monet’s personal and professional life. His wife Camille, whom he had married in Paris in 1870, became very ill. She died at Vétheuil in 1879. It was also a period of financial hardship as sales of Monet’s paintings were slow. He was also more distanced from his fellow Impressionist painters at this time. He wrote to Theodore Duret in 1879 “I have become a country-dweller again and … I only come to Paris very rarely to sell my canvases.”
A further complication was that the Monets were joined by another family at Vétheuil. There they shared their house with his former patrons, Ernest and Alice Hoschedé, who had also fallen on hard times. Ernest Hoschedé had been a wealthy businessman and an important patron and collector of the Impressionists. However, he lost his collection when he became bankrupt in 1877. After Camille’s death Claude Monet and Alice Hoschedé continued to live together and they married in 1892, after Ernest’s death.
Through all of these changes, Monet continued to paint and he drew inspiration from his new rural environment. He focused on landscape and often worked out of doors, perhaps in part to escape from the crowded house shared by the two families, which lacked a studio. It was at Vétheuil that he started painting in series, observing the same subjects in different light and weather conditions.
Snow scenes were a particular favourite among the Impressionists, and Monet painted over 100 canvases that explore the way light plays upon the snow. The limited palette of one early example, The Magpie (1860, Musée d’Orsay) was met with consternation at first. The art critic Felix Fénéon remarked that the public, who was “accustomed to the tarry sauces cooked up by the chefs of art schools and academies, was flabbergasted by this pale painting."
Later, in 1895, Monet even embarked on a winter painting trip to Norway. In a letter to his friend Gustave Geffroy, Monet mentions that conditions were so frigid in Norway his beard had frozen: “I painted part of the day today, while it was snowing continually: you would have laughed to see me entirely white, my beard covered in icy stalactites.” This image of Monet sitting with an icy beard is perhaps fitting for the harsh winter of 1879-80 when Monet was living at Vétheuil.
Lavacourt under Snow is dated 1881, but it was probably painted earlier. Monet – like many artists – often added a signature and an inaccurate date after the picture was painted – perhaps when the work was sold or sent to an exhibition. It may well date to the winter of 1879/80, which was unusually cold. The river Seine froze, and Monet was captivated by the way the landscape was transformed by snow and ice, braving the freezing temperatures to set up his easel outside.
The painting is one of a group of similar views looking upstream with the rustic cottages of Lavacourt on the right. The composition is relatively simple, allowing the artist to focus on the play of light on the snow. A strong diagonal line formed by the houses and the line of trees guides our eyes over the water of the river Seine and across to the opposite side of the river. The great bank of snow in the foreground is conveyed with broad brushstrokes, the whites overlain with blues that become darker in the middle distance. The cold blue and grey tones suggest that this side of the river is in shadow, unlike the opposite side, where pink tones suggest the warmth of pale sunlight.
This view of a traditional rural world untouched by industry contrasts with scenes of Parisian modernity with which the Impressionists are often associated, and with Monet’s views of London, such as the painting of Waterloo Bridge from 1901, also at Hugh Lane Gallery. Waterloo Bridge was given to the gallery by Mrs Ella Fry, while Hugh Lane purchased Lavacourt under Snow. Both pictures were bought from the Parisian dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who had done much to create a market for Impressionist paintings and who instigated innovations such as solo exhibitions. Lavacourt under Snow was included in a ground-breaking exhibition of Impressionist paintings that was organised by Durand-Ruel at the Grafton Galleries, London, in 1905.
At the time of the Grafton Galleries exhibition, the critic Frank Rutter launched a French Impressionist Fund Committee in order to buy an Impressionist painting to present to the National Gallery. The committee proposed Lavacourt under Snow but it was evidently too avant-garde for the Gallery’s trustees and Eugène Boudin’s The Entrance to Trouville Harbour was bought instead of the Monet.
Lavacourt under Snow was bought instead by Hugh Lane. It went on display in Dublin from January 1908 when Lane opened the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (now called Hugh Lane Gallery) which was at the time on Harcourt Street. In 1908 the English Impressionist painter and theorist Wynford Dewhurst wrote to Hugh Lane praising him for the two Monets in the gallery: “Of the pictures of Monet, you have in No 109 [Lavacourt under Snow] one of the very finest paintings in existence, a real masterpiece. Some little time ago I subscribed a guinea to a fund for the acquisition by the state. The other Monet [Waterloo Bridge] is also a masterpiece.”
While Lane donated many works to the gallery from the outset, Lavacourt under Snow was among the conditional gifts that he placed on loan on the condition that a new purpose built building be constructed to house the collection. Various sites and buildings were proposed for the new gallery building and Lane favoured a gallery bridge spanning the river Liffey designed by Edwin Lutyens. When Dublin Corporation narrowly voted against Lane’s bridge proposal in 1913, Lane removed his group of conditional pictures. He put them on loan to the National Gallery, London, and bequeathed them to the English gallery in his will. After his death aboard the Lusitania in May 1915, a codicil to the will was found leaving them to Dublin. However this codicil, though signed, was deemed invalid as it was not witnessed, a decision that proved controversial. The paintings stayed in London and Lavacourt under Snow was accepted by the National Gallery a decade after Frank Rutter’s proposed gift was declined. Since 1959 a number of agreements have been in place allowing the paintings in the Sir Hugh Lane Bequest 1917 to be shown in both Dublin and London, and it can currently be seen in Dublin as part of The Lane Legacy exhibition which celebrates Lane’s gift to the city.