Monet’s Turf


by Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge
Abrams, 304 pp., $75.00

Claude Monet
Claude Monet; drawing by David Levine

Monet by Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge could be called a “cocktail table book,” but it is far superior to most books of that kind, and for this reason deserves attention. It is also the latest in a flurry of publications devoted to the famous Impressionist and prompts an examination of his astonishing vogue. During the past decade Monet has supplanted Cézanne as the Impressionist favored by artists, critics, and historians, if we are to judge only by the number of articles, books, and exhibitions.

A book meant to be displayed is by definition as much a commodity as a piece of writing, and at $75, Monet lives up to the description. It has 125 excellent color plates, several of them luxurious fold-outs that display images as wide as 27 inches (the book itself is 13 x 10 1/2 inches and weighs slightly over five pounds). About 140 more paintings are reproduced in black and white, and there are nearly one hundred documentary photographs. Robert Gordon conceived the book, and is responsible for most of the illustrations, as well as the accompanying citations and short descriptive paragraphs on biography, style, or subject. Andrew Forge is, in effect, his guest, and Forge’s text appears on only 125 pages. It frequently cohabits on the page with Gordon’s paragraphs, which invariably have a very different tone, and at times one must seek its continuation by leafing through as many as eighteen intervening pages of Gordon’s album.

Robert Gordon has published several articles on Monet’s Giverny gardens and on the famous cycle of Waterlilies in the Orangerie. He is what the French call a documentaliste, and in this book he reproduces for the first time the abortive plans of 1920 for the exhibition rotunda that Monet wanted to build next to Rodin’s museum in Paris. Gordon’s selection of reproductions is consistent with the packaging of a picture book: one is encouraged to dip into it here and there, to sample a variety of landscape views, interiors, famous persons, family members, and, of course, paintings, but not to pause long over any one of them. The generous reproductions offer a well-balanced summary of Monet’s output, but most have nothing to do with Andrew Forge’s interpretative text (whereas his text lacks references to the plates, so that one has to match his titles with captions in the hope of landing on the same picture). Gordon includes thirty-one reproductions from Monet’s key years in Argenteuil in the 1870s, but Forge gives Argenteuil only a few scattered paragraphs. There are fourteen of the extraordinary Belle-Isle pictures of 1886; Forge limits his comments to one paragraph.

Taken together, Gordon’s squibs and the connecting tissue of Forge’s prose provide a potted biography of Monet, but, true to its format no footnotes or exacting references disturb the reader. There is not even a plan of Giverny, to which so much attention is…

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