1881 (50 Kb); Oil on canvas, 100 x 80 cm (39 3/8 x 31 1/2 in); Private collection
This is one of the flattest landscapes ever painted. At around the same time, Cezanne was flattening his still lifes by distorting the tables to a vertical orientation. Monet stops short of distortion through a judicious choice of subject. A hillside staircase provides the form for a dramatic flattening of the painting. Monet accentuates this effect with a strong dividing line going up the right side of the stairs, between the houses and continuing up the chimney to the top of the canvas. The sky and buildings are highly geometrized forms whose flatness serves to bring the deepest part of the composition back up to the picture plane. The stairs are not individually distinguishable; if not for the children placed on them, they could be read as a cliff. The children themselves are frozen in full frontal portrayal, which again contributes to the flattening effect. There are few perspectival clues provided. No clouds are shown that would break up the solid plane of dark blue sky. No shadows can be discerned, even though the scene is bathed in sunlight. This results in a number of interesting ambiguities. Are the buildings next to each other, nearly touching? Or is one or the other to be perceived as in front? The structure on the left seems to be directly at the top of the stairs. But the blue roof on the right draws a line across the pink roof that brings it abruptly forward, hanging precariously over the hillside. Even the sunflowers are puzzling. The blossoms do not diminish in size as would be expected as they near the top of the canvas. As a result, they can be read either as a wall of plants at the base of the staircase, or as rows of vegetation terracing the hillside. This work, so unlike much of Monet's work in its flat plane composition, is a testament to the breadth of his oeuvre.