Monet in the 20th Century 20-December 27, 1998, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 23-April 18, 1999
This past summer the Frick Collection announced it had borrowed a Monet to accompany its own picture by the artist, Vétheuil, Winter (1879). That the two canvases could be treated as a special exhibition in this citadel of old masters is a token of the vast claim that Monet now has on the art-minded public. For the past two decades Monet has had a larger place in museum exhibitions in the United States, Europe, and Japan than any other artist with the possible exception of Picasso. Last autumn’s Monet and the Mediterranean was a huge success at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago set attendance records in 1995 with its extensive retrospective of the artist’s work. Now the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has turned over to Monet more room than for any previous exhibition there. In Monet in the 20th Century there are only eighty-five paintings dating from 1900 to the artist’s death in 1926, but the scale of his late work, like the peacock’s glory, demands space: some are nearly twenty feet wide.
Already in 1892, Boston could claim preeminence in America’s appreciation of Monet, as the press kit for the current show tells us. That year the Saint Botolph Club exhibited twenty-one of his paintings owned by Boston collectors, and that was only half of the Monets then to be found in and around the city. In 1911 the Museum of Fine Arts was the first American museum to mount a retrospective of Monet’s work, and in 1927 it was the first museum anywhere to hold a commemorative exhibition in the wake of the artist’s death the previous year. More recently, the MFA mounted “Monet in the ‘90s” in 1990—which included selections from his series of paintings of stacks of grain, of poplars, and of the Cathedral of Rouen—when nearly 540,000 visitors made it the most attended exhibition in the institution’s history. As with the current show, its only other venue was the Royal Academy of Arts, so Boston’s virtual US monopoly has been continuous.
Paul Tucker, professor of art at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has been the principal curator and catalog author for both exhibitions. Beginning with his Monet at Argenteuil and continuing with contributions to several exhibition catalogs—he put together Monet: A Retrospective for three Japanese museums in 1994—Tucker has become Monet’s most prominent commentator. His essay dominates the catalog, but there are helpful comments on Monet’s several sites (London, Venice, and, above all, Giverny’s flower and water gardens) by museum professionals George T.M. Shackelford and MaryAnne Stevens, and other essays by the art historians Romy Golan, John House, and Michael Leja.
The most unusual feature of both exhibition and catalog might pass unnoticed by all but specialists. Wall labels and captions tell us whether or not a picture was included by Monet in his own exhibitions and …