An exhibition opening on February 16 at San Francisco’s De Young Museum focuses on the last years, and the last works, of French painter Claude Monet, an icon of Impressionism and a pioneer of abstractionism.
Monet has been called “the great anti-depressant,” and it would be hard to dispute the uplifting qual- ity of those luminous scenes so exquisitely rendered that they have withstood the perils of overexposure. One might assume that the author of such peaceful works would himself be serene, yet he was anything but, perhaps because capturing the transient effects of light and atmosphere on canvas is a deceptively arduous task. Consider the Impressionist tradition of painting en plein air. Standing in front of an easel in a sun-dappled meadow is one thing, but painting outdoors can also mean contending with unexpected storms and gusts of wind. The very term “Impressionism” implies spontaneity, as if the movement’s practitioners simply dashed off their paintings.
In fact, Monet reworked his canvases for weeks, months, or years, sometimes (blasphemously) relying on photographs. Even the initial version of a painting was no casual affair. Believing that the light changed every seven minutes, he would work on multiple canvases simultaneously, hurriedly switching from one to the next. He had few qualms about slashing, burning, or otherwise destroying pieces he considered inferior.
Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899. © National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
“We have these connotations of Monet as someone who was very calm and who worked quickly and easily and efficiently,” observes Ross King, author of 2016’s Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, in an interview. “That just shows how great an artist he was, that he was able to disguise his torment.”
While these challenges could easily exhaust even a young artist, Monet renewed his quest to still the fleeting moment and entered a period of intense creativity in his later years. “As radical and innovative as he was in his 20s and 30s, he was even more radical and innovative in his 70s and 80s,” says King. “I think there are almost no artists you can say that about.” It was during this time that Monet took on his most ambitious project of all (and the subject of King’s book): the vast Nymphéas that make Paris’s Musée de l’Orangerie a pilgrimage site for art lovers. The Surrealist André Masson even called it the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.
This remarkable winter bloom is the subject of Monet: The Late Years, which brings together some 60 paintings, including 20 from Paris’s Musée Marmottan Monet, home to the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work. A number of the pieces have never before been exhibited in the United States. Beyond emphasizing Monet’s stature as a great Impressionist, the show invites viewers to consider his importance as a pioneer of abstraction.
Claude Monet, The Artist’s House from the Rose Garden, 1922-24. © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris
Monet once asserted, “Aside from painting and garden- ing, I’m good for nothing!” During this final stage of his long career, he melded his two passions by depicting the living masterpiece he was cultivating in Giverny. As in his earlier years, he returned to the same subjects over and over under different conditions; Rouen Cathedral and London’s House of Parliament gave way to his garden’s Japanese bridge, rose-bowered footpath, and, of course, lily pond, which he painted some 250 times (20 examples appear in the show).
Like his subject matter, his style evolved. Having constructed a huge studio, he was able to branch out into large-scale painting. This, in addition to his failing vision, led him to depend less on direct observation of nature and more on his mind’s eye, lending his work a more subjective quality. As exhibition curator George T. M. Shackelford puts it, he was “mining his past, yet creating works that looked like nothing he had ever done before.” His compositions seemed to extend beyond the frame. His brushwork became broader and more expressive, the images moving closer and closer to abstraction.
Once again, though, Monet could only see where his efforts fell short of his conception. His magnum opus, Les Nymphéas, was a gift to the French nation, a symbol of peace in the wake of World War I. Each year, thousands of visitors from all over the world sit in meditative silence before these monumental masterpieces. Yet the paintings weren’t installed installed at the Orangerie until after Monet’s death in 1926, as he could never complete them to his own satisfaction.
Monet, The Late Years
February 16 through May 27
De Young Museum
San Francisco, CA
June 16 through September 15
Kimbell Art Museum
Fort Worth, TX