Claude Monet’s The Magpie (Paris: Musée d’Orsay), painted in Étretat on the Channel coast near Le Havre in 1869, is universally acknowledged to be his early masterpiece. Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge call “the miraculous [Magpie] the prize of the joyful winter at Étretat.” Mary Matthews Gedo states that it is “one of the most magnificent snow scenes in his entire oeuvre.” And Alice Thomine-Berrada concludes that by “choosing a light palette and applying a delicate touch to the colored rendering of shadows . . . Monet created one of the first masterpieces of Impressionism.” But any analysis of Monet’s dazzling technique and subtle colors that ignores the symbolic bird Monet emphasizes in the title can take us only so far. To fully explain the meaning of this miraculous and magnificent masterpiece, we must understand several other elements that contribute to its power: the harsh conditions in which Monet worked, Pieter Bruegel’s painting of a magpie, and the significance of the magpie in folklore, opera, and literature.

Born in Paris in 1840 but taken to Le Havre at the age of five, Monet was as Norman as calvados and camembert and deeply attached to his native place. In the winter of 1868–9, he told his close friend, artistic colleague, and generous patron Frédéric Bazille that he and his family were living in desperate poverty: “for a week we have had no bread, wine, fire to cook on, or light.” But he had an iron physique, worked demonically hard, and was willing to endure severe climates and extreme hardships in order to capture the effect of light on snow. In December 1868, in a sudden change of mood, he wrote Bazille, “I spend my time out-of-doors . . . [and] go into the country which is so lovely here that I perhaps find it even more agreeable in winter than in summer.” He believed he did his best work when “face to face with nature and alone.”

In 1868, an intrepid reporter for the local Journal du Havre was surprised to encounter a madman, invigorated by adversity and hard at work under Arctic conditions: “It was during winter, after several snowy days, when communications had almost been interrupted. The desire to see the countryside beneath its white shroud had led us across the fields. It was cold enough to split rocks. We glimpsed a little heater, then an easel, then a gentleman, swathed in three overcoats, with gloved hands, his face half-frozen. It was M. Monet, studying an aspect of the snow.”

Critics have not done justice to Monet’s extraordinary work of art. Lynn Federle Orr, praising the “abstract quality” of the clear, realistic painting, offers an inaccurate description. She asserts that in “The Magpie, one of Monet’s early masterpieces, form dissolves under the combination of a greatly restricted color range, aerial perspective and broken brushwork. A virtuoso color performance, the painting is an essay on the variations of white perceptible in the reflection of sun on crisp new snow. Wonderfully abstract passages of flat color, such as the strong violet shades along the fence, are divorced from the spatial realities of the objects portrayed.” But the light and dark brown, gray, white, yellow, red, and violet colors are not, in fact, “greatly restricted.” The perspective is not aerial, but level with the landscape. And the color is not “divorced” from the objects portrayed.

Sylvie Patin defines Monet’s artistic aim, but doesn’t explain how he achieves it or what “the dark bird” means. She writes that “Monet seems to take up a special challenge: how to use different shades of white to express the density and luminosity of a winter landscape, to which the dark bird stands in sharp contrast.” François Mathey develops this argument by defining Monet’s chromatic discoveries and technical achievements. He states that “snow offers a superb pretext for bold technical innovations: to show that white is not white, that it has less luminous intensity than any pure color, just as shadow is not absolutely dark but colored. It also made it easier to capture a fleeting impression on a lingering reflection. In any case, these experiments required some virtuosity of execution.” But he does not show how snow—rather than water, haystacks, or cathedrals—makes it easier for the painter “to capture a fleeting impression.”

Virginia Spate, connecting color to structure, notes “a kind of oscillation between the delicate atmospheric colour and the linear structuring of surface and depth.” Meyer Schapiro also analyzes The Magpie in terms of its subtle colors and writes, “the blue shadow on the snow is closest to the blue on the roof,” and the four shades of blue “are contrasted with the warm tones of the building—the yellow, the darker brown of wood, and scattered touches of sunny yellow in the white of the snow.”

Léon Degand and Denis Rouart relate The Magpie, more usefully, to an artistic tradition and also emphasize the color of the shadows in what they call “Monet’s finest snowscape”: “Much favored by the Japanese and the Dutch and Flemish masters, the theme of landscape under snow was taken up again by [Johan] Jongkind and Courbet in the mid-nineteenth century and systematically developed thereafter by the Impressionists. Their careful study of the effects of sunlight on snow (paralleling their study of sunlight on water) led them to discover, empirically, the fact that shadows too are charged with color.”

But these critics leave out the most important artistic analogue of The Magpie. Bruegel’s Magpie on the Gallows (1568, Darmstadt: Hessisches Landesmuseum) also emphasizes the bird and brings us closer to the meaning of Monet’s painting. In Bruegel’s foreground the same tiny, white-breasted, long-tailed magpie rests on the wooden crossbar of an unusually high wooden gallows, erected on a boulder, and represents the hanged man. The bird and punitive gallows stand above a dancing peasant couple, a man pointing to the magpie, and another man defecating in the lower left corner. A second magpie pecks on a rotting tree trunk, a tall wooden cross stands on the grave mound of previous victims, and a stone farmhouse with a water mill appears on the lower right. A thin river with a few sailing boats winds beyond a thick coppice of trees. A vast, flat, grisaille landscape extends between two high rocky fortresses and a large riverside town beneath jagged surrealistic mountains. The cloudy gray sky is flecked with tiny birds swirling in the distance. Keith Roberts convincingly observes that the painting by Bruegel, a master of snow scenes such as the Hunters in the Snow, suggests “the transience of pleasure, and the threat of extinction which hangs over all mortals. The gallows are a memento mori which throw a long shadow over the gaiety of the peasants’ dance and the beauty of the sunlit landscape.”

Monet’s painting was also influenced by the subtle colors of Whistler, a close contemporary, in his three Symphonies in White (1860s). It also foreshadows the themes of his own emotionally charged Break-Up of the Ice (1880). In that picture, which Monet completed during another unnaturally harsh winter in 1879, the frozen river, the surging floods, and the crashing blocks of ice suggest not only his grief after the death of his wife, Camille, but also the liberating emotional breakthrough with his lover Alice that followed his wife’s death.

Claude Monet, Break-Up of the Ice, 1880. Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille.

Monet completed the large, three-by-four-foot Magpie when he was only twenty-nine. The heavy snow on the ground, fence, and roof is illuminated by a brilliant winter sun in a gray sky, which casts violet shadows, slanting down from left to right, on the yellow-flecked white foreground. The snowscape is contrasted to the tiny, solitary, black bird, the only living creature in the bleak scene, ominously perched on the crooked gate and surveying the blankness. The magpie, looking in the direction of the long shadows and with a touch of color on its breast, hides its exceedingly long tail—longer than its body—and white feathers under its folded wings.

In Monet’s picture, the twisted, ice-laden tree branches, between the snow-covered farmhouses and red-brick chimneys, jut out menacingly toward the vulnerable black magpie, and seem about to break off and crash into the silence. The fence posts, half buried in the snow, cast clearer shadows on the purplish snow. The background is all polar desolation, and the threatened magpie has no insects or berries to eat. Monet captures, through a veil brightly, the phantasmagoria of fresh snow and hazy sky, the evanescent tones and silvery light. The official Salon of 1869, unimpressed by Monet’s miraculous brushwork, delicate colors, and luminous beauty, crushed him by rejecting this work.

The physical, folklorish, and musical magpie—who will not stay for long and has an unpleasant, raucous song—demands closer attention. Like its North American cousins, According to a field guide to birds, it has a “long streaming tail and white wing patches. . . . [It] wanders erratically in winter, and its call is an ascending whine or rapid series of loud harsh notes.” The magpie has distinctly negative connotations. It is cunning and thievish, associated with witchcraft and—as in Bruegel—with death. It also picks up shiny objects, especially precious jewels and metals. In Rossini’s opera La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie,” 1817), the heroine is falsely accused, and almost executed, for stealing a silver spoon that has actually been stolen by a magpie.

Three great writers have associated snow and birds with death. James Joyce’s “The Dead” (1914) is the finest example of all snow-death motifs, from the wintry landscapes of the Russian novelists to Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. Joyce portrays the power of the dead over the living when the jealous Gabriel Conroy realizes that his wife, Gretta, has loved her dead young suitor more than she’s ever loved him. The story mournfully concludes as the snow “lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. . . . He heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Like Monet’s Magpie, Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” (1921) conveys an emotional response to a wintry scene:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow. . . .
and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind. . . .
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Monet also had a “mind of winter” as he confronted the sharp frost and the trees heavily burdened with snow. He, too, listened to the cold silence and, facing the snowscape, felt the absence suggested by nothing and the menacing presence of nothingness.

Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” (1900)—emphasizing the bird in the title and using the archaic adjective, like Keats and Matthew Arnold, to mean “in the dark” or “in the darkness”—has a similarly miserable mood and theme. The poet, rather than the thrush, rests on the gate and confronts the forbidding snow scene of specter-gray frost, winter’s dregs, weakening sun, scored sky, and haunted men seeking refuge:

I leant upon a coppice gate
   When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
   Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
   Had sought their household fires.

Suddenly, a decrepit thrush, noted for its delightful music, breaks into the bleak scene. Unaware of the grim and worsening condition of the world, it sings its pathetic and quite hopeless song:

At once a voice arose among
   The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
   Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
   In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
   Upon the growing gloom.

Hardy suggests that if the bird had the man’s realistic view of the gloomy world, it wouldn’t subject the listener to its painfully ironic music.

In contrast to the moribund mood of Joyce, Stevens, and Hardy, Monet’s optimistic critics have ignored his hunger, austerity, and failure. They treat The Magpie as if it were similar to his delightful landscapes rather than to the darker portrayal in The Break-Up of the Ice. Gary Tinterow calls The Magpie “a pure, clear vision of the peace of rural life.” Eliza Rathbone surpasses him by claiming it is “a positive, even joyful, view of a winter’s day.” These critics disregard the symbolic magpie that is menaced by the white shroud of shadowy snow. Like Monet, it has no food, sings a whining song, and is buffeted by a desolate climate. But to Monet, the black magpie—though not peaceful and joyful—is also a positive symbol. Like the artist, it heroically struggles to survive, even without nourishment and warmth, in a harsh and hostile environment.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 7, on page 77
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