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Monet Our Contemporary

Monet in the 20th Century 20-December 27, 1998, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 23-April 18, 1999

an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, September

Monet in the 20th Century

Catalog of the exhibition by Paul Hayes Tucker, with George T.M. Shackelford, by MaryAnne Stevens, and essays by Romy Golan, by John House, by 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.)

  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.

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