Haystacks — the old beehive kind, not the modern giant wine bottle cork ones. And as for yards… well yards of painted canvas spread over a significant number of paintings. Makes me wonder, why haystacks? Why did they become such popular subjects for painters as cute children and dreamy landscapes?
We were back at the Gallery of Modern at to see an exhibition on American Impressionism: A New Vision that has been running over the summer, and closes shortly. One advantage of leaving visiting till the last moment is that parking is no problem, and fewer people shuffle with you in an elongated hirpling caterpillar around the rooms, so allowing more time to study works that appeal.
Mary Cassatt’s painting of a young woman in a white dress, by a window with light flooding through, was the first to catch my eye. Then followed works by other big names — John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, both friends of the French Impressionists, especially Degas and Monet. Others with works on show had spent time in Paris or near Giverny where Monet had made his home. Yet others had worked in the States.
But back to the haystacks. They were impressive. Twelve little square pictures, originally fifteen, painted by John Leslie Breck at different times of the day: short shadows, long shadows, muted colours, strong colours, the washed out colours of the midday sun, with a moon like a silver button hanging in the sky of the last. Some feat. I sat on the grey leather bench and enjoyed their luminosity.
There was the Singer Sargent painting of Monet painting haystacks, the former slightly flat and crude-looking beside the latter with its wonderful splashes of sunshine on the grass, and soft velvet shadows amongst the trees. On the opposite wall hung one of his famous haystacks, Haystack: Snow effect.
Having exhausted haystacks as a subject for his works, Monet moved on to producing a series of paintings of the tall elegantly slender poplars ranged like dancers in the corps de ballet along the bank of the River Epte near his home. He painted on his studio boat, adapted to let him work from a low viewpoint so that the poplars appear to soar, raising their outstretched arms to the sky, the spectacular reflected in the river.
While engrossed in his series of paintings, the local council moved in to fell the trees, grown as a commercial crop (perhaps for matches) and now ready for clearing. Monet tried to persuade the council to delay their clearing, but no luck. Undaunted, he approached the local timber company and struck a deal that allowed him time to finish his paintings before the trees concerned were felled.
The cost of his action was justified. When his poplar series was exhibited at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris sales were considered very satisfactory. Poplars on the Epte 1891 is a painting I would never tire of looking at, were I lucky enough and rich enough to have it hanging on a wall in my home.
Both Whistler and Singer Sargent were known to many young Scottish artists of the time, with the Butterfly (Whistler) becoming something of an idol to those known as the Glasgow Boys. Some essential ingredient of art appreciation must be lacking in me for Whistler as a man I find eminently fascinating with his dandyish appearance, his sarcasm, his love of blue and white china, and his self belief. But his paintings, often overworked and reworked, leave me cold. Though I rather think I might enjoy seeing the peacocks he painted as he ran amok over the walls and ceilings of his patron’s newly redecorated dining room, his excuse being that the décor didn’t show off his blue and white Chinese vases to best effect.
Singer Sargent became friendly with the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, and the American woman who became his wife (Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne), when Sargent shared rooms in Paris with his cousin Bob Stevenson. Both were studying at the atelier Carolus Duran.
Singer Sargent painted RLS, and when Vailima on Samoa became the family home, the furnishings included their Rodin sculpture and Singer Sargent painting, along with Chippendale chairs and a piano, silver, crystal and portraits, rugs, and porcelain tea services, all transported across the world from Edinburgh’s Heriot Row.