Through a wide range of media, Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967) often investigates light, color, and perception. He has a particular interest in issues relating to climate change and sustainability. In 2009, he began his Colour experiment series, producing circular canvases that depict color gradients derived from works by painters deeply engaged with capturing atmospheric effects, such as J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) and Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), as well as from his own photographs of his native Iceland. The first artwork created in conjunction with a book in the Frick Diptych series, Colour experiment no. 109 was painted in response to Monet’s Vétheuil in Winter.

gallery view of two pieces at Frick Madison
Gallery view of Olafur Eliasson and Claude Monet, on display at Frick Madison. Photo Joseph Coscia Jr.

In the summer of 1878, Monet, then thirty-eight years old, moved with his family to Vétheuil, a remote village along the Seine, roughly halfway between Paris and Rouen. There he would paint about two hundred canvases, making it one of the most prolific periods of his career. Created during Monet’s first winter in Vétheuil, the Frick painting depicts the village, with its abbey church, against the background of the snow-covered hills, and in the foreground the partly frozen Seine with two boats crossing it. The painting is experimental in its approach to the wintry landscape, with Monet virtually using only two colors, blue and white, with some small insertions of black and brown. Monet’s Vétheuil years were some of the most difficult of his life. He had been plagued by financial problems, and in September 1879, his wife Camille died after a long battle with cancer. Between 1879 and 1880, France experienced one of the coldest episodes in its history, the so-called Little Ice Age. Paris and the Seine valley were transformed into a polar landscape, with ice floes on the river.

Eliasson abstracted the palette of Monet’s Vétheuil in Winter from a color-calibrated photograph of the painting, spreading the corresponding colors out onto the surface of his canvas in a gradient wheel that transitions from dark to light. The result is a thought-provoking juxtaposition that recalls Monet’s own experiments with light and color and accentuates both the formal qualities and poignant resonance of the original canvas. In the Diptych publication, Eliasson describes his process and his reaction to the finished work, explaining that Monet’s “emphasis on the ephemeral qualities of light and the weather invites my abstract narrative into Vétheuil in Winter to coexist with his . . . I look at how matter is solid, liquid, ethereal, and lucid in Vétheuil in Winter, at the daylight bouncing off the snow. And what I see is shimmering light and colors. I see the relationships among colors. What makes this painting so extraordinary to me is how the colors vibrate or wiggle in relation to each other.”

  528 — Spoken Label
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