Monet Our Contemporary

Monet in the 20th Century

an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, September 20-December 27, 1998, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 23-April 18, 1999

Monet in the 20th Century

Catalog of the exhibition by Paul Hayes Tucker, with George T.M. Shackelford and MaryAnne Stevens, and essays by Romy Golan and John House and Michael Leja
Museum of Fine Arts/Yale University Press, 310 pp., $24.95 (paper)

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.1 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 Argenteuil2 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 whether or not it remained in his studio after his death. Why is this important? No previous exhibition had made those distinctions, and therefore viewers could think that the unfinished paintings were no different from those Monet exhibited. Their more freely brushed surfaces made them look more like Abstract Expressionism than finished paintings, and more than one museum and dealer took advantage of this to suggest that Monet’s work was particularly appreciated by younger painters. We were led to believe that the unfinished and unsold works were available to artists and public before the 1950s; in fact they were largely unseen and therefore could hardly have had much influence on the modernists. In addition to careful labeling, the organizers of the Boston exhibition have frequently hung pictures in pairs and larger groupings to draw attention to the differences between unfinished and finished works.

The logically organized catalog is not the usual assortment of specialists’ essays that are so different from one another that the catalog has no overall coherence. John House’s introductory essay, “Monet: The Last Impressionist?,” sensibly recounts Monet’s career in order to identify the late paintings as consistent with the artist’s early association with the Impressionist movement. Tucker’s long essay discusses the years between 1900 and 1926, and is followed by Romy Golan’s study of the surprising neglect between 1927 and 1952 of Monet’s permanent installation in the Orangerie, which consists of twenty-two water garden paintings known as the Nymphéas.

Michael Leja’s essay ends the catalog with an examination of Monet’s sudden revival in the 1950s. Leja is surely right to trace the origins of Monet’s current popularity to the middle 1950s in New York City. The Museum of Modern Art bought a large late Monet in 1955 and immediately gave it prominence by proclaiming its appeal to contemporary artists. Several exhibitions in the US and Europe made the same claim, while museums and collectors acquired dozens of the artist’s late pictures only then coming onto the market after three decades of neglect in the abandoned Giverny studio.3

In the catalog of the exhibition Claude Monet at the Edinburgh Festival and at the Tate Gallery in London in 1957, Douglas Cooper acknowledged rather grudgingly that Monet had recently risen to new prominence because young American artists made him appear

as a begetter of the abstract movement in painting on the basis of the broad brushwork and polyphonic use of colour which occur in his late works, notably in his last (post-1912) Water-Lilies series…. We need not be surprised, therefore, to find the last works of Monet described as “abstract impressionism,” a label which serves the convenient purpose of immediately linking them with that tendency in contemporary painting for which the term “abstract expressionism” has already been coined. This interpretation (launched in America) of Monet’s evolution is spreading….

Cooper did not entirely welcome this development because he thought many of Monet’s late paintings were failures or unfinished, and, in any case, for this redoubtable defender of Cézanne and the Cubists, Monet’s vaporous colors, lacking definite planes and boundaries, could not quite reach Cézanne’s heights, dominated as they were by the escarpments of geometry and form. Few established critics and historians would then have disagreed. In 1949, Kenneth Clark called Monet’s cathedrals “text-book examples” of decadence, and the next year, Lionello Venturi dismissed the late Water Lilies as the artist’s “gravest artistic error.”4 For that matter, major collections formed between the two world wars, like that of the Barnes Foundation, paid little attention to Monet and instead favored Cézanne and Renoir.

By contrast with European critics, American writers more readily promoted Monet’s late works, not only because of his relevance to Abstract Expressionism, but also because he was much appreciated by Americans well before Cézanne was. By the late 1880s, not long after Monet had settled in Giverny, a number of lesser-known American painters were working there, including J.L. Breck, Theodore Butler (who married Monet’s stepdaughter in 1892), Lila Cabot Perry, Theodore Robinson, and Theodore Wendel.5 Their landscapes, including many of the Seine valley near Giverny, have the choppy brushwork and sunstruck freshness of contemporary French Impressionism, and sometimes show particular awareness of Monet’s work. These painters were collectively known as the “Giverny School,” although before 1900 Monet’s preeminence was not always recognized by American writers who referred to it.

Just why Monet and other Impressionists were so welcome in the US is evident from Hamlin Garland’s Crumbling I dols, published in 1894, in which he discussed international Impressionism after visiting the World’s Columbian Exposition held the previous year in Chicago. Unlike the French critics, who saw Monet’s work in relation to government-sponsored academic art, and who consequently were aware of his rebelliousness, Garland and many other Americans could see him as an empirical painter of the natural landscape, which their own traditions favored. The Impressionist, Garland wrote, “loves nature, not history.” He saw Impressionism as the art of the democratic present and future, freed from Europe’s absorption in history. “The Impressionist is unquestionably an iconoclast, and the friends of the dead painters are properly alarmed. Here, as everywhere, there are the two parties,—the one standing for the old, the other welcoming the new.”

In 1957, Douglas Cooper, Kenneth Clark, and Lionello Venturi were of the old party, and the Americans William Seitz and Clement Greenberg were of the new. Following Cooper’s Edinburgh-London exhibition by a few months, Seitz’s catalog for the equally large retrospective in the City Art Museum of Saint Louis and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts featured Monet as vital to contemporary American art. Seitz’s catalog was based on his influential essay of the previous year, frankly entitled “Monet and Abstract Painting,” in which he claimed that

the optical qualities of Impressionism, which appeared so antithetical to abstract painting twenty years ago, are integral to the abstract painting of the forties and fifties. In America, this reintegration came about with the expressionistic aggressiveness of the forties, but in the fifties it has become increasingly lyrical, and more and more identified with nature.6

This more “lyrical” art was attributed to younger artists such as Nell Blaine, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Joan Mitchell, and Hyde Solomon, who were often referred to as “abstract impressionists.” Leja makes the key point that it was not the established Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock, Newman, or Rothko who were drawn to Monet’s late paintings—their godfathers were Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, and Miró—but the younger New York painters of the 1950s. The masculine aggressiveness of the older innovators was challenged by these “lyrical” painters who included many more women; gender-laden terms were applied to them, including “passive,” “delicate,” and “meditative.” Leja also notes that Clement Greenberg acknowledged in 1956 that color in Monet and in artists like Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman was a legitimate alternative to the contrasts between light and dark and the geometric organization, traced to Cézanne and Cubism, that had heretofore dominated his own conception of abstract art. “Right now,” Greenberg wrote, “any one of the Water Lilies seems to belong more to our time, and its future, than do Cézanne’s own attempts at summing-up statements in his large Bathers.”7

With the help of Greenberg’s imprimatur, the floodgates to Monet’s water gardens were opened in New York. John I.H. Baur’s Nature in Abstraction at the Whitney Museum, featuring “lyrical” painters like Mitchell and Guston, invoked Monet’s late work in which color and light “assumed independent, virtually abstract roles.” Then in 1960 Seitz (a protégé of Alfred Barr) brought the first major Monet show to New York, his Seasons and Moments at MOMA. His descriptions of Monet’s late Water Lilies could have been applied to any number of contemporary artists: “the saturated, shuttling color tones, the scraped and scumbled flatness of the canvas surface, the nervous tangles that will not retreat into illusion….” Seitz was the first to have formed a retrospective around Monet’s series of stacks of grain, poplars, cathedrals, London, Venice, and water lilies, and this emphasis on the painter’s successive versions of a particular subject has dominated Monet exhibitions ever since, including Tucker’s two Boston shows of 1990 and 1998. (Indeed, Seitz’s presentation did much to endorse the very concept of “series” in contemporary American art.)

The avant-garde’s reevaluation of Monet’s late work is now well established, but we need further reasons for his quite astonishing rise in popular reputation since the early 1980s. Among them is the vigorous promotion of his estate at Giverny, with its refurbished house and gardens, as a prominent stop on the tourist circuit. 8 There are no Monet paintings at Giverny, but in museum shops and bookstores the world over, its gardens are celebrated in picture puzzles, children’s Monet kits, facsimiles of his self-designed dinnerware, boxes of Monet flower seeds, postcards, posters, and a surprising range of picture books. Going to exhibitions of actual paintings therefore seems to have been taken as the reward of the tourist’s or reader’s excursion to Giverny. Equally important is the much greater availability of color illustrations; there were none in Seitz’s 1957 retrospective. Before the present quarter-century, Monet’s pictures often seemed formless because color differences are obliterated in black and white reproductions: a pale yellow contrasts with a pale violet, but they look identical in black and white.

There are other reasons for Monet’s current prominence, such as the widespread and continuing popular taste for nature painting, and the devotion to individualism that marks all of modern culture. With the aid of his floral gardens, the dream of many a suburbanite, Monet became a person with whom people could feel rapport, in contrast to Cézanne, whose art and studio have no connection with leisure travel and instead evoke the painter’s aloof solitude. Monet’s gardens and his paintings withdraw us from urban cares, yes, but they have also become part of a sociable museum world where enjoyable moments, like the sight of vacation landscapes, are paradoxically defined by their communal associations. Many thousands are flocking to Boston to have their encounter with Monet in crowded galleries. Calvin Tomkins ended his praise of the show in a recent New Yorker by quoting from John House’s essay in the catalog about the late Giverny pictures where there is “nothing to disturb the viewer’s solitary immersion in the private experience of viewing.”

The viewer’s association of her or his own feelings with those of the painter is a particularly modern phenomenon. The late Nicholas Green demonstrated that in Monet’s generation, artists’ biographies became entangled with the evaluation of their art.9 In earlier times aesthetic and monetary value were attached mainly to the paintings themselves and their subjects, but the Impressionists’ critics and dealers shifted the emphasis to the artist’s temperament and life. Two artists faced with the same view could paint different scenes because since Romanticism, portraying nature had become an individual act; spontaneity and instinct were prized over finish and calculation. Sketches took on saleable value because they offered access to the artist’s individual genius. “The market in modern art was reorientated around the buying and selling of individual painters,” Green writes.

The sketchiness of Monet’s paintings, especially the Cyclopean late works, means that the separate streaks of paint are so evidently marks of the artist’s hand that the viewer has to interpret them as an individual’s gestures, not as realistic reproductions of nature. Close examination of the Water Lilies and other paintings shows that there is usually as much calculation as spontaneity in these marks. They often float atop layers of irregular thick wrinkles of paint built up over several sessions. Furthermore, a surface stroke is often not the result of one gesture as it appears to be, because after it had dried, Monet frequently crossed over it with strokes of other colors thinned out so that they do not disturb its apparently spontaneous texture. In some instances, in other words, he carefully painted his brushstrokes. The colors we see and the actual textures of paint thickness do not coincide.

Monet disguised his elaborate procedures—it takes close looking to understand them—in order to reinforce the idea that he responded instinctively to nature. Tucker shows that by about 1900 Monet regularly collaborated with journalists and friendly critics to play down his studio work and to emphasize the close connection between his gardens and his paintings. More than previous historians, Tucker describes the artist’s manipulation of his market by pitting one dealer against another, asserting control over his exhibitions and prices, controlling accounts of his life, and outmaneuvering residents of Giverny who opposed the expansion of his gardens. However, like Monet’s other historians, Tucker has little to say about the artist’s obsession with wealth and with maintaining a grand landed estate; he emphasizes instead his individual genius and his distance from “commercial concerns.”

That Tucker sees himself as close to Monet is evident from the empathetic language that he uses to describe both pictures and gardens. Pictorial elements assume lives of their own, sometimes to an extreme, such as when a willow tree “tilts backward and raises its armlike branches to paw the air”; but most of the time Tucker successfully draws the viewer into a believable perception of the pictures. Referring to several paintings of water lilies that were first exhibited in 1909, he writes:

The light of the reflected sky ripples through the foliage at the top of the scene as it descends down the canvas, passing under the pads that push out from the darker reflections on either side. The light then spills out into a twisted bell-like pool in the middle of the picture, creating eddies and surface patterns across the lower half of the image that contrast with the direction, shape, and orientation of the surrounding lily pads and foliage. Monet’s touch in this area is startlingly free, his paint strikingly porous, allowing the white priming of the canvas to flicker throughout the area.

Tucker’s emotive language makes Monet accessible to the nonspecialist. In any case, the artist has always been more popular with the middle class than, say, Manet or Degas. Partly because paintings of the human figure and urban scenes offer more explicit associations than landscapes, the work of those artists has attracted admiring attention from feminists, social historians, and adepts of semiotic interpretation, whereas Monet is treated by them as a creature of petty bourgeois taste. He suffers also in comparison with Cézanne, whose work was central to abstraction and modern theory owing mostly to his having been championed by the Cubists and their critics.

Although Tucker has a popular touch, and avoids the arcane language of modernist critics, he has his own original analysis of Monet’s political and social preoccupations, a singular feat when landscape is the only issue. Deeply troubled by the Dreyfus Affair, Monet stopped painting for a year and a half, and then in 1899 gave Georges Clemenceau a painting of a rocky promontory which he named Le Bloc in honor of the politician’s pro-Dreyfus actions; it was also a punning reference to Clemenceau’s parliamentary faction. (It is now in the collection of the Queen Mother of Great Britain.) Near the end of the First World War in 1918, Monet offered Clemenceau two paintings for the nation, saying that they would be signed upon the proclamation of victory. The victorious “Tiger of France” converted this offer eventually to the donation of the Nymphéas to the state. During the war Monet constructed a huge special studio for the Nymphéas cycle, and Tucker convincingly interprets the entire project, culminating in the Orangerie’s installation in 1927, as showing the painter’s conscious identification of his art with national purpose.

Tucker also finds that, ironically, Monet receded from the national spotlight in the years following the First World War. Drawing upon the work of the art historian Kenneth Silver,10 he shows that Monet’s compositions, “with their ill-defined forms and independent touches of paint, their unpredictable light and limitless space,” were rightly associated with “the tentative, the ambiguous, the personal.” They were therefore at odds with the mood in postwar Paris when the demand to retain wartime discipline and order was reflected, however distantly, in the classicizing art of Renoir and in the pictorial order and geometry of Cubism and international Constructivism.

Still, Tucker sometimes concentrates too narrowly on Monet. A few pictures cry out for comparisons with other artists, not to detect “influence” but to situate Monet more fully in the history of pictorial forms and subjects. Some of the paintings of Waterloo Bridge with smoking factories on the far shore (in the London series, painted between 1900 and 1904) make one think of Pissarro’s renderings of Rouen’s bridge over the Seine in 1896; and Pissarro had painted Charing Cross Bridge in 1890, well before Monet.

In his section on Monet’s paintings of Venice exhibited in 1912, Tucker refers to J.M.W. Turner only in passing, and tantalizes his readers by mentioning, virtually without comment, that Monet bought a translation of John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice in 1908. Between them, Turner and Ruskin helped to shape artistic perceptions of Venice, and I believe Tucker could usefully have taken more account of their work (as well as that of Canaletto and Guardi, who are not discussed either). Similarly, while Monet knew and admired Whistler, Tucker fails to mention him when he writes about Monet’s London pictures shown in 1904.

Tucker also misses the opportunity to link Monet’s late painting of his floral gardens with two of the early influences on his work that remained with him to the last: Eugène Delacroix’s fiery color and loose brushwork, and the broken color of dabs and streaks that characterized the work of such Barbizon artists as Narcisse Diaz and Théodore Rousseau. In four paintings of the garden path at Giverny (catalog nos. 5 to 8) painted from 1900 to 1902, the viewer can see conspicuous links between mid-nineteenth-century painting and Monet’s last work of the 1920s. Foliage and blossoms take the form of vertical trails of blood-red, purple, brown, and green that hang down from above like the dangling skeins of dyed wool one sees in North African market streets.

I also miss any reference to the current preoccupation with “nature” as having connections with gender. Even such a cautious art historian as the late John Rewald saw the Giverny gardens as a distinctly masculine creation. At Giverny Monet

had found a new outlet for his creativity: the manipulation of nature, not so much to impose an alien will on her, but rather to provide her with the necessary conditions to set her free. All he asked in exchange was that nature…reward him with a lush burst of blossoms, of leaves, of twigs, of spreading bushes, or climbing vines. And nature outdid herself in gratitude.11

Although Tucker demonstrates how much Monet’s pictorial language tries to interpret nature, not copy it, he shows no interest in the possibility that its aggressive brushwork reveals an artist who subjected natural forms to his energies.

Implicit in the title of Monet in the 20th Century is a somewhat simplistic question: Was Monet a twentieth-century painter, or a nineteenth-century artist who lived on beyond 1900? Tucker has a neatly formulated response. Monet expressed “a nineteenth-century sensibility with radical twentieth-century means.” This allows Monet to be placed in both centuries, and yet there is a tension in his work after 1900 that Tucker does not adequately describe. The great swirls and slashing streaks of his paint have an aggressiveness that does not induce serenity in the viewer but instead, as in van Gogh’s work, an anxiety produced by the contrast between the subject and its rendering. Both artists appeal to us, I would suggest, because we are drawn to nature and yet, at the same time, we worry about modern industrial culture running roughshod over it and around it. Perhaps that is why we react strongly to paintings that suggest a sense of discord and contradiction.

Another source of such reactions can be found in the fact that the Nymphéas and many other late paintings were done in a windowless studio. Too big to be carried out to the pond at Giverny, they denied early Impressionism’s insistence upon painting in front of the subject. In them we can see the apparent conflict between the cerebral inventions of the studio and the desire for the most refined embodiment of naturalism. There is little of Courbet’s sense of nature’s material substance here, and we find none of the fish, frogs, water birds, or boats that he and Corot painted. These are forms that let us read their paintings of rivers or lakes as visual texts referring to objects and activities beyond their surfaces. Turn-of-the-century reviewers of Monet’s pictures, struck by the absence of such forms, write that the pictures induced reverie and withdrawal. They also likened them to decorative art,12 a suggestive insight when we consider the later reception of Monet’s work. For much of the theory and practice of abstract art drew upon the characteristics of the decorative: its stress on surface effects of color and pattern at the expense of illusions of depth, its glorification of color over three-dimensional form, its exclusion of narrative human figures and therefore of historical and psychological immediacy, and its use of coordinated schemes or series.

In Boston, visitors are encouraged to look back at Monet’s twentieth-century paintings from the perspective of decorative art and abstraction and the retreat from nature characteristic of both. Barbara Schapiro, an enterprising curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, has installed “Reflections of Monet” in the modern wing on the floor below the Monet show. Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jackson Pollock, Fairfield Porter, and others tell us that the primacy of color in much contemporary work can be traced to the master of Giverny. Visitors might well start there, and then go upstairs to see the Monet show in reverse order. They would begin with the latest paintings suitably shown in I.M. Pei’s new galleries, and then move into the building’s nineteenth-century rooms, peeling away layers of modern sensibility to exit among the museum’s superb holdings of earlier art, where they will find eleven additional Monets painted before 1900—including paintings of Rouen Cathedral and stacks of grain—together with canvases by Courbet, Corot, Millet, Delacroix, Turner, and others with whom the younger painter had deep ties.

In this fashion, drifting slowly backward in time and space, the viewer would be liberated from the conventions of the expected, and see that Monet’s twentieth-century paintings are not to be seen as streams flowing from earlier sensibilities, but as an estuary with its own visual ecology. Artists and critics of the 1950s were right to find both passion and useful invention in these extravagant works. In pictures of the artist’s Japanese bridge (catalog nos. 79-80; see illustration on page 20), we find such fiery color, barely controlled by the bridge’s writhing geometry, that we can wonder if the state of ecstasy that is being evoked will dissolve into mephitic flame. In works like the Water Lilies exhibited in 1909, we repeatedly find pale, masklike ghosts of a large figure with flaring skirts who floats disturbingly among the floral nymphs. Executed between the artist’s sixtieth and eighty-sixth years, Monet’s twentieth-century paintings are not the work of a youthful Narcissus who sees his own image, but that of an old man who plays knowingly with paint as he gives a disturbing substance to the ephemeral incarnations of sky and foliage on the surface of water.

  1. 1

    See my article “Impressionists on Stage,” The New York Review, November 2, 1995, pp. 44-47. Among Monet events elsewhere in the current year are Monet at Vétheuil (Minneapolis Institute of Arts), and Monet: Paintings of Giverny from the Musée Marmottan (Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, San Diego Museum of Arts, and Portland Art Museum, Oregon).

  2. 2

    Yale University Press, 1982.

  3. 3

    MOMA’s Monet was destroyed in the museum’s fire in 1958, but it had purchased three other late paintings the previous year, and bought two more in 1959.

  4. 4

    Clark’s influential Landscape into Art (1949; Harper and Row, 1976) p. 177, and Venturi’s Impressionists and Symbolists (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), p. 63.

  5. 5

    See William H. Gerdts, Monet’s Giverny, An Impressionist Colony (Abbeville, 1993).

  6. 6

    College Art Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Fall 1956), p. 35.

  7. 7

    Art News Annual for 1957 (December 1956), p. 196.

  8. 8

    Claudette Lindsey, assistant director of the Claude Monet Foundation at Giverny, informs me that so far this year there have been nearly 470,000 visitors; she estimates that 40 percent to 50 percent are Americans. Another draw in Giverny is the Musée Américain, which capitalizes on the Monet phenomenon by showing America’s own Giverny painters, and other American artists.

  9. 9

    Dealing in Temperaments: Economic Transformation of the Artistic Field in France during the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century,” Art History, Vol. 10 (March 1988), p. 72.

  10. 10

    Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925 (Princeton University Press, 1989).

  11. 11

    John Rewald, introducing The Gardens at Giverny by Stephen Shore (Aperture, 1983), p. 9.

  12. 12

    Monet himself referred to his Nymphéas as “decorations,” and earlier, in 1908, he lent a picture of water lilies (catalog no. 37) to the Gobelins factory for a tapestry.