Poppy Field (Argenteuil) (1873) by Claude Monet
Interpretation of Impressionist Landscape Painting

Pin it

Poppy Field (Argenteuil)
By Claude Monet.
Regarded as one of the
greatest modern paintings of
the nineteenth century.

For an appreciation of
landscapes by Impressionist
painters like Monet, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Poppy Field (Argenteuil) (1873)


Explanation of Other Paintings by Monet


Name: Poppy Field (Argenteuil) (Wild Poppies) (1873)
Artist: Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Landscape painting
Movement/Style: Impressionism
Location: Musee d'Orsay, Paris

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Analysis of Poppy Field (Argenteuil) by Monet

Claude Monet was the leading figure in a loose-knit group of modern artists who became known as Impressionists. Monet himself, along with Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) and Renoir (1841-1919), was most interested in capturing the optical effects of sunlight on the colours and shapes of nature. This necessitated the mastery of plein air painting, so as to immediately record in paint, the momentary effects of light. (Note: For more, please see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting: 1870-1910.)

This particular masterpiece of Impressionist landscape painting was painted by Monet the year before the first of the Impressionist Exhibitions in 1874, and about the same time as he painted Impression: Sunrise (1873, Musee Marmottan, Paris). Poppy Field was painted in the area around Argenteuil, where Monet lived between 1871 and 1878. Evoking the resonant atmosphere of a stroll through the fields on a summer's day, it is now among the world's most famous landscape paintings of the 19th century.




A woman and child (probably Monet's wife, Camille, and their son Jean.) walk through a field of thick grass; red poppies cloak the bank that rises to the left; while another woman and child appear at the top of this bank. There is no sign of any link between the two pairs of figures, and no obvious reason why the woman in the foreground has lowered her parasol. On the horizon a ragged line of trees closes off the field, with, at the centre, a single red-roofed house. Although it is a fine day, there are some clouds in the sky, which temporarily mask the sun. As a result, an even light is spread over the whole landscape.

This is a very ordinary, pleasant scene, although the site is not especially picturesque; neither the lie of the land nor the trees in the background offer any particular interest. In fact, there are some suggestions that we are near a town, rather than in the heart of the countryside - the figures are dressed as middle class people rather than peasants, and the house in the background is a substantial villa, not a rural cottage. The scene probably is a meadow near Argenteuil, the town on the River Seine just north-west of Paris where Monet lived and painted at the time.

The treatment of the scene, too, gives no special attention to any of the elements in the scene. The brushwork is variegated and informal, suggesting the diverse textures and shapes of figures, flowers, grasses, foliage and clouds without any great detail. At first glance, the viewer's eye is attracted by the dark jacket of the woman on the right and the sharp tonal contrasts in her hat, as well as by the array of loose red dabs that suggest the poppies that give the painting its title, set against the grey-green of the grasses. As we look further, we see the boy, seemingly holding a bunch of poppies and waist deep in the grasses, and the other figures to the left, and we register the delicacy and finesse of the nuances of colour and touch that indicate the receding space of the meadow.

Poppy Field was first exhibited in 1874. It appeared in the independently organized group show in Paris - see Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris, for details - that first prompted the art critic Louis Leroy (1812-1885) to christen the group the 'Impressionists', focusing on their sketch-like technique and everyday subject matter, which seemed to prioritize the immediate impression of a scene over any deeper meaning and significance. In many ways, this approach to painting challenged contemporary expectations about the purpose of the fine arts - that they should convey values and beliefs beyond the mere surface appearance of the work itself. The vision of the French countryside that was current in the art exhibitions of the period, notably at the vast annual exhibitions of the Paris Salon, focused either on the spectacular scenery of coasts and hills or on the fruitfulness of France's agricultural lands. In this hermetically sealed world of traditionalist aesthetics, there was no place for middle-class figures or hints of the proximity of the city - no room for signs of material change or social distinctions. Poppy Field posed a direct challenge to these expectations and to the conventions upheld by the French Academy; the figures strolling in the meadow suggest nothing beyond the pleasures of a summer day, and the scene displays none of the markers of the true countryside. (Compare this with Manet's charged genre painting Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863), which was a simple bourgeois scene with a difference!)

An interesting contrast is provided by Fields in the Month of June (1873) by Charles Daubigny (1817-1878), of the Barbizon School, which was exhibited at the Salon in 1874 while Poppy Field was on view in the Impressionist exhibition. The foreground in both pictures is dominated by poppies, and the main pictorial effect is created by the contrast of the red dabs against the complementary green behind them; and in both, the paint handling is broad and informal. But Daubigny's canvas is huge - its surface area is nine times as big as Poppy Field — and it captures a vast panorama of agricultural land, with open fields and haystacks beyond the poppies, and small peasant figures embedded in the landscape. This is an all-encompassing vision of the essence of rural France. Monet's painting, by contrast, shows figures strolling in a trivial corner of the countryside, with no suggestion that there is any significance to the scene beyond the here and now.

Pictures of the French countryside had a special resonance in the early 1870s, when these canvases were put on display. France had recently suffered the dual trauma of military defeat by the Prussians, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, as well as the civil insurrection of the Paris Commune in the spring of 1871, followed by its brutal suppression. In the aftermath of these events, a special value was placed on the image of the French countryside as a fertile and serene realm, visibly untouched by recent events and implicitly the cradle of future national recovery. Daubigny's canvas celebrates this vision, while Monet's does not.

What Impressionist painters offered, in their new type of modern art - as seen so vividly in Poppy Field - was a modern view of the world: one that accepted and celebrated all its contingencies. This view is expressed in both the painterly technique and the subject matter of the picture. The informal brushwork gives a sense of the overall effect of the scene, as if caught by a rapid glance, and gives no special status or meaning to the figures or any other element in it, though there is remarkable subtlety and sophistication in this seemingly impromptu paint surface. Moreover, the title that Monet chose for the picture diverts attention from the figures, focusing instead on the purely visual effect of the red flowers scattered across the bank. At the same time, the view itself is typically modern, depicting the middle-class at leisure in a setting where the natural world meets the suburban villa. By exhibiting Poppy Field in the group exhibition in 1874, Monet was at one and the same time presenting a new vision of landscape and a new notion of the finished picture.

Note: Poppy fields were the subject of another four paintings by Monet, painted in 1890 near his home in Giverny. See, for example, Poppy Field (Giverny) (1890-1, Art Institute of Chicago).

Explanation of Other Paintings by Monet

Women in the Garden (1866-7) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Monet's first significant success.

La Grenouillere (1869) Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Typical outdoor canvas by Monet.

Gare Saint-Lazare (1877) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Part of a series of the Paris train station by Monet.

Water Lilies (1897-1926) Various art museums.
Monet's series of over 250 paintings of his Giverny water garden.

Water Lily Pond: Green Harmony (1899) Musee d'Orsay.
One of 18 views of the wooden Japanese footbridge over the pond at Giverny.

NOTE: For the story behind Impressionist paintings and the artists who created them, please see our 10-part series, beginning: Impressionism: Origins, Influences.


• For the meaning of other Impressionist landscape paintings, see: Homepage.

© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.