Monet and Chicago, an Impressionist Love Story

Claude Monet never set foot in Chicago – or in the United States for that matter. However, he enjoyed tremendous success there from the 1890s onwards thanks to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, the man who put Impressionism on the map, and a number of influential local collectors. This “collective passion” for the French painter is the subject of an exhibition opening on September 5 at the Art Institute of Chicago, which hosted Monet’s first solo exhibition in a museum in the United States in 1895 and now boasts the largest collection of Monets outside of France. As Gloria Groom, the museum’s curator of European painting and sculpture, puts it, “Monet is in our DNA.”
Claude Monet, The Artist’s House at Argenteuil, 1873. © The Art Institute of Chicago

France-Amérique: In the exhibition catalogue, you write that the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was “indirectly responsible for Monet’s success” in Chicago. Why?

Gloria Groom: Chicago, then the second largest city in the country, had rebuilt itself after the great fire of 1871 – turning to Parisian architecture for inspiration – and used the World’s Fair to showcase its industrial might. Twenty-five million people visited the fair in six months. Coincidentally, Impressionism arrived onto the world stage as Chicago was recovering from the disaster, and the city embraced this artistic movement associated with modernity. Paul Durand-Ruel’s New York gallery hosted the first Impressionist exhibition in the United States in 1886. Chicago collectors like the Palmers and the Ryersons began acquiring paintings a few years later as preparations for the fair were gaining momentum. Bertha Honoré Palmer bought 20 Monets in 1891 alone!

How did these early collectors shape the city’s interest for Monet?

Mrs. Palmer was what we now call an influencer. She was intelligent, well-known, and wealthy – her husband was Potter Palmer, the real estate magnate behind the historic Palmer House hotel. She was involved in the social, cultural, and political life of Chicago and anything she did automatically became popular. As president of the Board of Lady Managers, she ensured that Monet was represented at the World’s Fair. She already knew his dealer, Durant-Ruel, and had seen the Stacks of Wheat series in Paris in May 1891. She met Monet at a Renoir exhibition the following year and visited him at Giverny. She also had a gallery built in her mansion on North Lake Shore Drive and invited heads of state, foreign emissaries, and other important figures to see her Monet collection during the fair in 1893.

Claude Monet, Apple Trees in Blossom, 1872. © Union League Club of Chicago

It seems that Monet’s work was immediately praised in Chicago and in the United States, while French critics mocked it at the first Impressionist show in Paris in 1874…

Impressionism in the U.S. never had to go through the kind of tribulations that it had to go through in France. We don’t have the same traditions, nor l’Académiele Salon, and the other institutions that dictate what art should look like. But of course, not everyone understood Impressionism here, either. When the Union League Club of Chicago purchased Apple Trees in Blossom in 1895, the president of the club supposedly said, “who would pay 500 dollars for that blob of paint?” But the Palmers and the Ryersons had influence. Many Chicago collectors like the Coburns, the Kimballs, the Winterbothams, and the Worcesters followed their lead and started to buy Monets. There was this kind of ripple effect. The Art Institute was the first American museum to purchase a painting by Monet, Bad Weather, Pourville, in 1903. [It was sold in 1930 and is now in a private collection.]

What do we know about Monet’s reaction to his success in America?

His increasing importance on the American market worried him. He realized that he was making money there, but he also wanted to be recognized in France. In January 1886, before the first Impressionist exhibition in New York, he wrote his dealer: “Do you really need so many paintings for America? People are forgetting about us here [in Paris] because as soon as you have a new painting you make it disappear.” On the other hand, he must have felt flattered when Mrs. Palmer bought five or six Stacks of Wheat in 1891: She understood his completely new work, the idea that each painting represented a different moment of the day, a different mood.

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Claude Monet, Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer), 1890-1891. © The Art Institute of Chicago
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Claude Monet, Stacks of Wheat (Sunset, Snow Effect), 1890-1891. © The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago owns the largest collection of Monets outside of France. Where do these paintings come from?

The early collectors gave us their paintings. We only purchased two of our 33 Monets: one Stacks of Wheat (we have six of the approximately 25 that make up the series) and Irises. The latter was left in the artist’s studio after his death and we acquired it in 1956. For this exhibition, 14 private collectors from the Chicago area lent us 35 works. Some of them are from the old families I mentioned earlier, but most of them are from local collectors who have acquired works by Monet over the last few years. There’s a kind of familiarity with Monet in Chicago that make people like him. He is not edgy, avant-garde, or dangerous, but he is timeless!

Monet and Chicago

From September 5, 2020 through January 18, 2021
The Art Institute of Chicago

Monet and Chicago
 by Gloria Groom, preface by Adam Gopnik, Yale University Press, 2020. 144 pages, 25 dollars.

Claude Monet, The Beach at Saint-Addresse, 1867. © The Art Institute of Chicago
Claude Monet, The Cliff at Varengeville, 1882. © Private collection
Claude Monet, Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877. © The Art Institute of Chicago
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Claude Monet, The Needle Rock at Low Tide, Etretat, 1877. © Private collection