Before Impressionism as a movement and as a style of painting had been fully formed, Claude Monet already had a sizeable catalogue of work in his early oeuvre. The works that he created in his late teens in Le Havre in Normandy, the works that he created prior to serving in Algeria as part of the First Regiment of African Light Cavalry and the works he created while studying at the atelier of Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre in Paris all fall into this bracket. One of the most iconic oil on canvas from his early career is The Magpie, painted between 1868 and 1869. The work was only the second snowscape painting that Monet had ever attempted, the first being The Cart. Snow Covered Road at Honfleur from 1867, but The Magpie is still regarded by many as the finest of the approximately 140 snowscapes that he created during his illustrious career.
In many ways The Magpie demonstrated Monet’s mastery of different styles and techniques that his teachers had imparted to him. The work shows the influence of Eugene Boudin and the en plein air methodology that he had first shared with Monet, and about whom Monet later said, “If I have become a painter, I owe it to Boudin”. The different conceptual and perceptual approach that Johan Barthold Jongkind had emphasised, and which would become a fundamental tenet of Impressionism, is also clearly on display, and of Jongkind Monet would later reminisce, “It was he who completed the education of my eye”. Perhaps most noticeably of all is the influence of Gustave Courbet who had been specialising in effets de niege (snow effects) since the mid-1850s. But unlike Courbet, who often chose hunting themes and motifs for his compositions, Monet and his Impressionist eyes chose to focus on the lights and colours that snow could create.
The Magpie is one of the first examples of an artist painting coloured shadows, which was something that would become a hallmark of the Impressionist movement - up until that point, the academic convention within the art world had been to paint shadows entirely black, without any colour whatsoever. By painting the actual colour of light and shadow as seen in nature, using subtle variations of similar shades, Monet’s canvas defied the status quo and as a result wasn’t accepted by the powers that be in Paris.
The work is believed to have painted at the Étretat commune in Normandy where he living with his then fiancée Camille Doncieux and their infant son Jean. At 2½ feet by 4½ feet in size, the canvas is the largest snowscape that Monet completed during his career, and it was submitted along with Fishing Boats at Sea (1869) to that year’s Paris Salon. Both works were subsequently rejected, due to the experimental use of colour and departure from the academic norm. Monet was furious at the time, saying, “This rejection has taken the bread from my mouth, and in spite of my low prices, collectors and dealers turn their backs on me”.
Over a hundred years later in 1984, The Magpie was purchased by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and is now considered to be one of the most popular works in their permanent collection.