Monet's 'The Magpie' is a striking early painting by one of history's most famous artists. Its creation was difficult and unlikely.
Claude Monet was born in Paris, in November 1840.
His father ran his own shipping supply business, and in 1845 he moved his family to Le Havre, on the south coast of France. Le Havre is one of France’s largest ports, and so the relocation provided a good business opportunity.
Monet’s father wanted Claude to follow him into the family line, but, from a young age, Monet showed an uncanny aptitude for art. Even as a child, he was able to produce drawings and charcoal etchings, that impressed friends and family with their raw skill.
Monet’s mother, Louise, had been a singer before becoming a home maker, and she supported her artistically inclined son.
With his mother’s encouragement, Monet was enrolled at Le Havre’s Secondary School of the Arts.
Here he would learn how to use oil paint, and also the artistic technique ‘En Plein Air’.
Meaning ‘in the open air’, this method had the artist leave the comfort of the studio, set up at an easel at an outdoor location, and paint the scene that was in front of them.
In the mid 1800’s, En Plein Air painting had only recently come to prominence, and was still considered something of a novelty. But Monet loved the approach, and began to utilise it more regularly.
Monet’s mother died in 1857.
Monet, devastated by the loss, dropped out of school, determined to become a professional artist. His father, by this time wealthy and successful, sent him to live with his aunt, and would remain unsupportive of his son’s artistic endeavours.
Monet moved to Paris around 1860, and quickly fell in with a lively crowd of young, like-minded artists. Studying technique with a local painter, Monet would meet Pierre August-Renoir, and Alfred Sisley, both fellow students.
All three were naturally gifted but shared a deeper passion for innovation. Even as they mastered classical painting technique, they chafed at its restrictions, and dreamed of creating newer, more modern, modes of artistic expression.
Renoir and Sisley introduced Monet to their circle of friends, a group of aspiring artists that included Cezanne, Pissarro, and Manet.
The group were tight-knit, friends as well as rivals, encouraging one another as they painted and hung out in the cheap cafes of the Montmartre district.
They were also volatile, quarrelling with each other and railing against the establishment. Moody and passionate, Monet would threaten suicide on more than one occasion.
They displayed their works where they could, mostly in small galleries, or in the studios of their friends. None of Monet’s circle were very successful, and sales were scarce.
But they were not without their admirers.
Louis Joachim Gaudibert was another successful merchant from Le Harve, who knew Monet’s family. He had seen some of Monet’s paintings and been sufficiently impressed by them to commission the young artist to paint a series of portraits of his wife.
He also rented Monet a cottage in Normandy in the north of France, where the artist could live and work. Monet moved to Étretat, a scenic town with a dramatic coastline, with his girlfriend, Camille Doncieux, in December 1868.
It was winter, and Monet wanted to paint the snow covered landscape.
Snow presents a particular challenge for a visual artist. It is essentially monochromatic, and so the colour palette required to capture the detail is subtle. A hundred slightly different shades of white are required, and then a light touch to assemble them in a way that reflects the landscape.
Excited by this undertaking, Monet took his easel and paints into the nearby countryside and set to work.
He wanted a large-scale piece, to convey his sense of the enormity of the task. His canvas would be 1.6 metres wide, and 1.2 metres tall. Unlike many artists from this time, Monet did not work on one section of the canvas at a time, but rather built up the whole painting simultaneously.
To offset his intricately constructed white snow shades, he added blue shadows, and pink hues to the trees that frame the location:
‘Here is a little square of blue, here is an oblong of pink, here is a streak of yellow; now paint, just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape until it gives you your own naïve impression of the scene before you.’
- Monet, describing his technique on ‘The Magpie’
He worked on the painting outside for several days, right through Christmas and into the New Year. It was undoubtedly very cold.
The Eurasian Magpie is one of commonest birds in the world, and one of the most intelligent.
They are one of only a tiny number of animals that are self-aware.
Scientists assess this with a technique called ‘The Mirror Test’; they discretely apply a colourful sticker to an animal, put it in front of a mirror, and see what happens. If the animal recognises the reflection as themselves, so the theory goes, they investigate the sticker to see what it is. If they don’t do this, if they ignore the reflection, or even react aggressively to it, they think the reflection is another animal.
The only animals that have passed the Mirror Test are certain ape species, dolphins, Asian elephants, killer whales, and magpies.
Magpies are common in France, although, in subsequent years, there has been debate about how likely it was that Monet saw one in the middle of winter.
There is speculation that he may have added it as an artistic flourish, to give the painting a dark focus point, amidst all that white.
Whatever the reason it was added, it would give the painting its name; ‘La Pie’, in French, ‘The Magpie’ in English.
Monet completed the piece in January 1869, and submitted it to The Salon shortly afterward.
The Salon was a biannual French art exhibition, staged in Paris by the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
For 150 years, The Salon was the arbiter of artistic taste in France, and Europe; the establishment, in other words. In order to make a career as a professional artist at this time, it was necessary to have your works shown at The Salon.
It was also a conservative institution, and suspicious of new ideas. En Plein Air painting was largely frowned upon, as were young artists more generally.
The Magpie was rejected by The Salon and, dejected, Monet went back to the drawing board. But success was not far off.
Monet would eventually give up on The Salon, and exhibit his works independantly with his friends. The term 'Impressionism', perhaps the most popular school of painting in modern art, is taken from one of his paintings; 'Impression... Sunrise', which he exhibited in 1874.
Fame and fortune soon followed.
In 2018, The Art Gallery of South Australia hosted a collection of impressionist paintings on loan from the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. Among famous works by Cezanne, Degas, Renoir and Pissarro, was ‘The Magpie.’
You can see it on the wall from some distance.
It dominates the room it is in.
It looks, more or less, like someone has opened a window and you’re looking out into the French countryside. Up close, you can see all the effort that went into its construction; all the millions of little dabs of paint, all those different shades of white, to get the snow looking just so.
It’s a beautiful painting.
But it is a lot take in all at once, so you stand for a bit to admire it.
There is a group of us there, all doing the same thing. And one woman, middle-aged, ordinary, there by herself I am fairly sure, just says aloud, to all of us,
‘This is my all time favourite painting. I can’t believe I am standing here looking at it.’
And she looks happy, but she is obviously emotional. Like she is really feeling this thing, and the moment. And now we're all feeling it too. It's amazing to think that this thing on the wall, a rectangle of canvas covered in oil paint, can still trigger this intense kind of emotional response, even after 150 years.
And it's, you know, just a great moment.