In the Summer of 1875, Monet painted four very similar views of the neighbouring fields of the plain of Gennevilliers, just southeast ofArgenteuil (figs. 84-86).'! These were not the first entirely rustic landscapes he had painted at Argenteuil—the celebrated Poppies at Argenteuil (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) dates from 1873—but they rigorously suppress any reference to those aspects of suburban life that had furnished Monet with the subject of his landscapes for the previous two and a half years.
The Annenberg Poppy Field records a summer's afternoon with rolling clouds set against a deep blue sky. The two poplars seen in the distance on the far left of the canvas mark the bank of the Seine as it flows north toward Epinay: the silvery river is just visible through them.? Standing in the poppy field, Monet's eight-year-old son Jean clasps an unidentifiable object in his left hand. In the foreground, two imposing poplars connect almost at a right angle with the flowering field. This L shaped armature corresponds in a general way to the proportions of the golden section; the composition as a whole recalls both Ruysdael and Constable. Yet, it is saved from being formulaic by the thrusting diagonals of the flowering field that recedes in a wide curve to the left, trailing away into the distance behind the second large poplar. To balance his composition, Monet reverted toa favoured device: lines of yellow and white paint, dragged across the middle ground above Jean's straw hat, admirably evoke the sun bursting through the clouds onto the green fields below.
Monet’s handling here is much freer and far more broken up than in the earlier The Bench , the paint now applied in flickering dabs and strokes of colour, with the buff ground particularly active in the lower half of the canvas as part of the field. Dots of red in the dense green foliage of the first large poplar, and, to a lesser degree, along the bark and treetop of the second, maintain the vibrancy Monet achieved in the painting of the poppy field itself. Calligraphic strokes of red, blue, green, and white—an explosion of colour—are balanced by the denser passages of blue and white in the sky, where the exposed priming gives depth and texture to the clouds.
Although Monet did not exhibit this painting in the Second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876, it is just the sort of “transcript from nature” that Mallarmé described so well in September 1876. Arguing that the landscapes of Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro were complete works and that their sketchy appearance was a contrived effect, Mallarmé concluded: “In these instantaneous and voluntary pictures all is harmonious, and [would be] spoiled by a touch more or less...."” Monet's four views of the fields of Gennevilliers do indeed have a determined, carefully constructed feel to them: their intensity has led the historian of Monet's Argenteuil period to conclude that they represent “not only summer personified, but also summer preserved.”
There is a hidden poignancy to the peaceful and bucolic image that Monet has achieved in this group of paintings. The meadows and fields of Gennevilliers were seriously threatened at this time: they stood to become the dumping ground for untreated sewage waste piped out from the city of Paris. Baron Haussmann’s administration had first experimented with small sections of Gennevilliers as a residue for such waste in the 1860s; by 1872 fifty acres were irrigated with sewage, and the number more than doubled by 1874. It was at this time that both a governmental and a prefectural commission proposed to irrigate practically all of Gennevilliers to accommodate the increasing amount of waste from the capital. Outraged residents of Argenteuil fought vigorously against such plans. Describing present conditions, one opponent noted: “During the real heat of the summer, from sun up to sun down, a fetid stench rises from these fields. Should our countryside, whose general appearance is so radiant, be a victim of this transformation, so little to its advantage?”’
In fact, plans to transform Gennevilliers into the “cesspool” of Paris advanced haltingly. Further, there is no evidence to suggest that Monet, who was generally uninterested in municipal affairs, was involved in the fierce lobbying that occurred at this time. Yet, the disjunction between the calm, colourful vistas he painted that summer and the depredations—both actual and potential—to the fields he represented is overwhelming. His landscape is both idyll and fiction, his vision both selective and simplifying. Scrupulously attentive to certain details, Monet placed himself squarely inside the densely coloured field in this painting, at a point far closer to the trees than in the other three versions. Further, although he was at pains to show the freshly made haystacks in both the Boston and New York paintings , in this work the fields in the background are treated so summarily that the stacks are discernible, if at all, only as the merest dabs of flesh tone.’ In fact, their absence removes any trace of the agrarian process from this painting; not only did Monet resist the consequences of burgeoning modernization that would eventually transform the fields of Gennevilliers altogether, but he pared his image to reduce topography to the minimum. The artist's concentration on means and not matter is the ultimate achievement of this precocious summer landscape.