The Story Behind Monet's Women in the Garden

Claude Monet's Women in the Garden (Femmes au jardin)
Claude Monet's Women in the Garden (Femmes au jardin).

Claude Monet (1840-1926) created Women in the Garden (Femmes au jardin) in 1866 and it is generally considered the first of his works to capture what would become his primary theme: the interplay of light and atmosphere. He used a large format canvas, traditionally reserved for historical themes, to instead create an intimate scene of four women in white standing in the shade of the trees beside a garden path. While the painting isn't considered to be among his finest works, it did establish him as a leader in the emerging Impressionist movement.  

Working en Plein Air

Women in the Garden literally began in the garden of a home Monet was renting in the Paris suburb of Ville d-Avray in the summer of 1866. While it would be completed in a studio the following year, the bulk of the work took place en plein air, or outdoors.

“I threw myself body and soul into the plein air,Monet said in an interview in 1900. “It was a dangerous innovation. Up to that time, no one had indulged in any, not even [Édouard] Manet, who only attempted it later, after me.” In fact, Monet and his peers popularized the plein air concept, but it had been in use for many years prior to the 1860s, particularly after the invention of pre-made paint that could be stored  in metal tubes for easy portability.

Monet used a large canvas, measuring 6.7 feet across by 8.4 feet high, for his composition. To maintain his perspective while working on such a large space, he later said he had devised a system using a deep ditch and a pulley system that could raise or lower the canvas as needed. At least one historian thinks that Monet simply used a ladder or stool to work on the upper area of the canvas and carried it in an out of the house overnight and on cloudy or rainy days.

The Women

The model for each of the four figures was Monet’s mistress, Camille Doncieux. They had met in 1865 when she was working as a model in Paris, and she quickly became his muse. Earlier that year, she had modeled for his monumental Luncheon in the Grass, and when he was unable to complete that in time to enter in competition, she posed for the life-size portrait Woman in a Green Dress, which went on to win acclaim at the 1866 Paris Salon.

For Women in the Garden, Camille modeled the body, but Monet likely took the details of the clothing from magazines and worked to give each of the women different appearances. Still, some art historians see the painting as a love letter to Camille, capturing her in different poses and moods.

Monet, then just 26 years old, was under considerable pressure that summer. Deeply in debt, he and Camille were forced to flee his creditors in August. He returned to the painting months later. Fellow artist A. Dubourg saw it in Monet’s studio in the winter of 1867. “It has good qualities,” he wrote a friend, “but the effect seems somewhat weak.”

Initial Reception

Monet entered Women in the Garden in the 1867 Paris Salon, only to have it rejected by the committee, who didn’t like the visible brushstrokes or the lack of a monumental theme. “Too many young people think of nothing but continuing in this abominable direction,” one judge is alleged to have said of the painting. “It is high time to protect them and save art!” Monet’s friend and fellow artist Frédéric Bazille bought the piece as a way to funnel the destitute couple some needed funds.

Monet kept the painting for the rest of his life, frequently showing it to those who visited him in Giverny in his later years. In 1921, when the French government was negotiating the distribution of his works, he demanded—and received— 200,000 francs for the once-rejected work. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

Fast Facts

  • Name of Work: Femmes au jardin (Women in the Garden)
  • Artist: Claude Monet (1840-1926)
  • Style/Movement: Impressionist
  • Created: 1866
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • Offbeat Fact: Monet's mistress was the model for each of the four women depicted in the painting.

Sources

  • Claude Monet Women in the Garden. (2009, February 04). Retrieved March 20, 2018, from http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/painting/commentaire_id/women-in-the-garden-3042.html?cHash=3e14b8b109
  • Gedo, M. M. (2010). Monet and his muse: Camille Monet in the artists life.
  • Women in the Garden (1866-7). (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2018, from http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/paintings-analysis/women-in-the-garden.htm