The Magpie by Claude Oscar Monet

Why was Monet’s painting, The Magpie controversial when it was introduced?

  • Shadows in color
  • Shifting emotions traverse a snowscape
  • Observing the scene from a magpie’s perch

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It wasn’t the loneliness in Monet’s painting The Magpie that drew controversy. The blue color of his shadows on the snow were the culprit. There’s a keen reality to this portrayal thanks to that blue. But in the 1860s all shadows in artwork were black. In fact, the Paris Salon believed this was a rule of sorts. They rejected this realistic winter landscape. The eminent Salon gave only one reason – shadows “should” be black. Monet’s are pale blue. That was it for them.

Lucky for us, Monet knew better than to hide away The Magpie due to this baseless rejection. Like any great artist, he painted what he saw. The shadows on snow gleam in pale blues. That’s authenticity. He showed shadows as they appear rather than the cerebral idea of what shadows look like. This marks a win for realism. From far away this painting looks like a window onto a snowy lawn. It feels so true that it makes me wonder why the Paris Salon cared so much about the shadows. To what did they cling? This reminds us that even the highest conventional authority can sometimes use a refresher.

Monet painted The Magpie en plein air, which translates to “in the open air”, outside in natural light. It was 1868. The metal paint tube and collapsible easel were new inventions. Fine artists explored fresh insights found in painting surrounded with sunshine and nature. Monet learned he preferred this environment for creating.

Gustave Courbet painted snowscapes outside for ten years. Then Monet got inspired by Courbet’s method. A few years after his first outdoor snowscape, Monet moved to Étretat. He made a home with his girlfriend Camille and their new baby, Jean. Monet was recovering from a bout of depression. Painting the snow outside raised his spirits. He had a newfound sense of satisfaction from it when painting The Magpie in his Étretat yard.

The Magpie by Claude Oscar Monet

Monet’s Silent, Sad Masterpiece – The Magpie

The emotional tenor of The Magpie swerves. It shifts from a lonely magpie perched on a fence to a family home nestled behind the bird. But this painting’s protagonist isn’t an animal or a house. It’s the color white. The bird is our painter, Monet. It represents isolation and observation. Our magpie sits to the side, slightly above the scene. The bird’s our lookout, a sentry in waiting. That’s a heroic take on this morose creature. But it fits.

That’s because Monet chose this magpie for the title as well as his representative here. After all, the bird echoes how the painter surveyed the scene to create it. We also know that Monet found isolation crucial to his process because he said this about his time in Étretat:

Don’t you think that directly in nature and alone one does better?…I’ve always been of this mind, and what I do under these conditions has always been better …. because it will be simply the expression of what I shall have felt, I myself, personally.

 Wildenstein, I, 425-26: letter 44, Dec. 1868 as quoted in Isaacson 1994.

Like the painter, this bird sits alone. But there’s much more to The Magpie painting. The house nestles among trees with a welcoming warmth. It glows as the only uplifting source of emotion in the piece. This represents his lady and baby. They await Monet inside – ready to embrace him when he comes in from the cold.

That pale chilly landscape tells the true story in the painting, though. It’s a tale of variations in white and shadow. The snow reflects shades of coldness in pale blue and lavender. There’s also warm sunlight glowing off the snow in pale yellow. The scene transitions with these pastel shadows. It’s cold and lonely. But there’s also warmth and hope nearby. That’s the emotional landscape for The Magpie.

There’s a gap between the isolation of the artist and their completed work. We also see this cravase here in the painting. Between the bird and the house there’s a chasm of sweeping shadows. They represent the transition between feelings as well as the artistic process.

Many times a fine artist will step away from their work to catch a more objective look at it. That’s the moment Monet captures here. He stands back to overlook the scene. Like the magpie on a fence, he’s remote and watchful. That small figure symbolizes potential.

The magpie means more than a mere bird here. It’s the artistic visionary who must sit astride a fence alone in the cold. Monet did the same and he made this masterpiece to honor that small solo part of himself. Thank goodness he did because The Magpie holds up as the hero of this story told in shades and shadows on white.

The Magpie – FAQs

What is a magpie?

This bird is a type of crow with a long tail and bold feather colors. But there’s another common meaning you may have heard. That comes from a derivation of the nickname Mag. Many use this as a term for chattery people. So, if somebody calls you a magpie, they likely mean that you talk a lot.

What is Monet known for?

In a word – Impressionism. Monet was the originator and heartfelt advocate of the Impressionist movement. The foremost characteristic of Impressionism in painting was an attempt to precisely and objectively record visual truth using a variance in the effects of light and colour.

Where can I see Claude Monet’s painting The Magpie in person?

In 1984 the Musée d’Orsay in Paris bought The Magpie and it’s one of their most popular paintings. We know that thanks to”visitor surveys and sales of postcard and reproductions indicate that it is the most popular single image in the museum” from Moffett, Charles S. (1999). Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige. Phillips Collection.

Like this analysis of The Magpie? Check out these other essays about the work of French painters.

Herbert, Robert L. (1996). Monet on the Normandy Coast: Tourism and Painting, 1867-1886. Yale University Press.

Roque, Georges (1996). “Chevreul and Impressionism: A reappraisal”. Art Bulletin

Tinterow, Gary; Loyrette, Henri (1994). Origins of Impressionism. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Meyers, Jeffrey (2011). “Cloud of unknowing”New Criterion29 (6): 73–75.

Schapiro, Meyer (1997). Impressionism: Reflections and Perceptions. George Braziller. 

Wildenstein, Daniel (1999). Monet: Or the Triumph of Impressionism. Taschen. 

The Magpie at the Musée d’Orsay 

Magalhães, Roberto Carvalho de (2003). Claude Monet. New York: Enchanted Lion Books.

Isaacson, Joel (1994). “Constable, Duranty, Mallarme, Impressionism, Plein Air, and Forgetting”. Art Bulletin.