Poplars were a bold choice of subject matter on Monet’s part: he portrays some of the trees as nearly naked, wire-like, unable to compress their blooming canopies into the composition. In fact, when combined with their aquatic reflections (a recurring motif in Monet’s work, from the seminal Impression, Sunrise to the later Water Lily Series) the trees resemble a grid of prison bars. And, as the air — freedom — between the steel rods occupies those behind bars, so the artist, an impressionist par excellence, pays particularly close attention to the atmospheric motions between the trees.
Monet does everything to vary the visual rhythm and break the somewhat imposing monotony of the horizontal trunks. First, the front line is delivered in a left-leaning perspective, so that each tree appears slightly smaller than the preceding one — the progression even implies a vanishing point at the far left before taking a turn to the right, deeper into space. Second, the tops form a band in the shape of a large “S,” which flows via the sky, dividing it into several visually manageable parts. Still, the linearity of the series is quite stark, almost acrobatic at times, and doesn’t always make for a smooth viewing.
Similarly to the Haystacks and the Rouen Cathedral Series, Monet captures the poplars during different seasons and times of day. The harmonies that defined the mood as cool, hot, or neutral in those previous chapters reappear, but in a more mellow, relaxed interpretation. It seems that the sheer amount of air caught between the “prison bars,” all assisted by a dose of streaming linear dynamism, prevents a condensation of atmosphere that made the earth in Haystacks and the stone in Rouen seem so pulsating and intense. While the canopies absorb and reflect the sun, the space as a whole usually remains neutral and calm. The flowering “S,” orange, green, or dark bluish, curves along the expanse of the sky in a deliberate, sweeping fashion.
This Wikipedia article on the Poplar Series describes a curious anecdote that once again demonstrates the artist’s dedication to his art. Apparently, the trees were meant to be cut down before Monet could complete the paintings; he bought the poplars to prevent their untimely demise — eventually reselling them to a lumber merchant. Perhaps he felt he did enough for the trees by perpetuating them on canvas.
*this article has been edited at a later date