Cunning Claude Monet

The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings

Catalog of the exhibition by James A. Ganz and Richard Kendall
an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, March 17–June 10, 2007, and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, June 24–September 16, 2007
Clark Art Institute/Yale University Press, 313 pp., $65.00

Claude Monet and His Posterity

Catalog of the exhibition by Serge Lemoine, Shuji Takashina, Akiko Mabuchi, and Yusuka Minami
an exhibition at the National Art Center, Tokyo, April 7–July 2, 2007
Yomiuri Shimbun, 278 pp.

Monet in Normandy

Catalog of the exhibition by Heather Lemonedes, Lynn Federle Orr, and David Steel, with essays by Richard Brettell
an exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, June 17–September 17, 2006, the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, October 15, 2006– January 14, 2007, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, February 18–May 20, 2007
Rizzoli, 192 pp., $45.00

Claude Monet (1840–1926): A Tribute to Daniel Wildenstein and Katia Granoff

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Joseph Baillio
an exhibition at Wildenstein & Co., New York, April 27–June 15, 2007
344 pp., $85.00 (paper)

In May this year, art-minded travelers could have seen four Monet exhibitions on successive days, going from the Wildenstein gallery in New York to the Cleveland Museum of Art, to London’s Royal Academy of Arts, and then to Tokyo’s new National Art Center. That four shows of Monet’s work could be mounted at the same time is possible because he was so remarkably productive: 2,044 oils, 515 drawings, and 108 pastels have been cataloged.1 Each institution had good choices with little need to compromise. Even Picasso, who was equally productive, has not matched the number of Monet’s recent appearances before the public. In the eight years beginning in 2000, in the US, Europe, Japan, and Australia, Monet has been given fourteen solo exhibitions. He’s also had a prominent place in twenty-four other exhibitions, including several in which his name appears first (such as “Monet and Japan”). Furthermore, many of these exhibitions traveled to two or more cities, so his geographical exposure has been extensive.

Between the two world wars, Monet fell out of favor. His shaggy and often vaporous structures lost out to Cézanne’s stacked and bounded planes that underpinned the geometry and pictorial order of much painting of those years. Monet was brought back to prominence in the mid-1950s when artists, critics, and museum curators championed his twentieth-century canvases of water gardens. Their lyrical transformations of nature have a gyroscopic energy that suited the postwar mood: tangible proofs, it seemed, of spontaneity instead of prior, calculated schemata.2 This vanguard taste soon merged with the longstanding appreciation of the paintings of scenes of leisure by earlier Impressionists. By the 1960s Monet was Mr. Impressionism, and two decades later, his garden estate at Giverny became one of the prime tourist spots in France even though it has none of his paintings. The ties that link middle-class tourism, leisure, and flowers to Monet have made him more accessible than the recondite Cézanne, whom he’s long outdistanced in the exhibition world.

Of the four recent exhibitions, “Monet in Normandy” had the fewest surprises. In a typical maneuver these days by writers and museums, its sixty-four paintings, all very familiar, formed a geographical selection of the artist’s oeuvre.3 Tokyo’s “Monet and His Posterity” had many more unfamiliar paintings. Of ninety-seven Monets, thirty were lent by Japanese museums and another sixteen by Japanese individuals and corporations. Few of these have been shown in recent years, so travelers familiar with European and American exhibitions would have been pleasantly surprised, and their conception of Japanese wealth confirmed. The show was devised by Serge Lemoine, director of the Musée d’Orsay, with the collaboration of Japanese colleagues. It inaugurated the new National Art Center in Tokyo (designed by Kisho Kurokawa), whose open spaces, flooded by overhead skylights, provide Tokyo at long last with an independent showplace for art.

The Musée d’Orsay sent seventeen of its famous Monets to Tokyo, and eleven came from other French museums, leaving no doubt that the exhibition was a diplomatic venture celebrating the longstanding French interest in Japanese art and Japan’s cult of Monet, who has displaced Millet as the country’s most admired Western artist. Following a current museum trend the installation divided up the Monets under formalist categories: light, color, reflection, rhythm, etc. “Posterity” was represented by twenty-six artists, mostly from the first generation of the Abstract Expressionists, but among them were a few European artists and three contemporary Japanese painters. Their relationship with Monet was justified on Western formalist grounds, some quite convincing, others less so. Three of Josef Albers’s Homages to the Square were shown because they supposedly echo Monet’s working in series.4

Wildenstein’s show of sixty-two Monets matched the Tokyo exhibition in one regard: on view was a galaxy of unfamiliar works. Thanks to the dealer’s tentacular reach into private collections, thirty-four paintings were lent anonymously, most of them rarely seen. There was a curious advantage to encountering Monet in the gallery’s small, crowded rooms on 64th Street. By contrast with the more spacious presentations of public museums, the pictures were close to the viewer’s face, encouraging scrutiny of the canvases’ surfaces. Monet painted Guardsmen Strolling along the Seine in 1870 with rather flat and unbroken strokes, which show that fresh outdoor light can be simulated without use of the famous “comma” strokes he used just a few years later. In Boats Moored, Zaandam of 1871, the intensity of the lime-green on the boats’ bulwarks was shocking, but seen from across the little room, this hue was tamed by the adjacent reddish browns and fitted well into the overall color harmony. Monet painted the gently trembling water in the foreground with dabs and dashes of opposed colors that render light so effectively that he soon began developing his broken strokes for roadways, tree trunks, buildings, and all the elements of his landscapes. By 1882, in paintings like The Path of La Cavée at Pourville, he interlaced myriad colors across the whole surface in small touches that foretell Seurat’s neo-impressionism.

The most enterprising of Monet’s four spring shows, “The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings,” has moved this summer from London to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. The first comprehensive exhibition devoted to Monet’s graphic work, it has twenty-three pastels, thirty-seven drawings in black crayon or pencil, and four sketchbooks full of penciled pages. “Unknown” may seem like an attempt to hype little-known works, but this exhibition brings to light unknown facts about Monet’s early life and about the far greater part that drawings had in his career than previously thought. The Clark’s two curator-authors, James A. Ganz and Richard Kendall, present more unfamiliar documents and new ideas about Monet than the other three catalogs put together (which included no drawings at all). Fresh information comes from an unpublished memoir of 1905 by Count Théophile Beguin Billecocq (1825–1906), which Ganz and Kendall obtained from an heir. Entitled Grand Journal, it was based on the author’s detailed diary and a huge correspondence. The two sources for the memoir have disappeared, but Ganz and Kendall tested its dates and events against external facts and found them entirely trustworthy.

The wealthy Billecocq and his family were closely allied with the Monets from 1853 onward, when the budding artist was twelve. They knew Monet’s parents well, and also his paternal aunt, Marie-Jeanne Lecadre, with whom the artist’s family lived after the death of his mother in early 1857. Billecocq described the artist’s father as a respected businessman, vexed by his son’s streetwise independence, and his mother and aunt as highly cultivated women. Of Mme Monet, he wrote:

She appreciated Romantic poetry and since her childhood had written Alexandrian verses, quatrains and sonnets, and what’s more, they were reasonably good. She drew with talent and kept her works, drawings and watercolors, in little sketchbooks that she guarded assiduously and only showed her family. In addition, she played comedy with grace and loved to receive in her salons upper-Havre society…. She also enjoyed reading, notably the prose of Balzac and the poetry of Lamartine.

Mme Monet arranged plays and acted in them, and she put on evening concerts for the elite of Le Havre. Mme Lecadre was particularly given to drawing and painting, and organized drawing sessions for her friends. None of this has been known until now, so the Grand Journal gives the lie to the artist’s later claim that he had to make his way as an artist without help from a philistine family. He also denied the importance of drawing that the Grand Journal documents and, in fact, avoided all mention of the Billecocqs once he became well known. Billecocq and his father frequently bought drawings by Monet and at least two of his oils. In 1859 Billecocq gave Monet five hundred francs, probably not the only such gift.

Monet’s suppression of his ties to this supportive family makes him a monster of ingratitude, but we’ve long known that he had a decidedly ruthless ambition. To enhance the myth of his independence, he not only suppressed his family’s cultured ambiance but he also denied studio work—nature was his only studio, he said—and therefore he muffled the importance to him of drawing, lest it suggest careful preparation for his “spontaneous” art. He always had a studio, and most of his paintings were completed there.

Billecocq’s memoir not only reveals the truth about Monet’s cultured upbringing, but also how thoroughly he was involved with this well-to-do Parisian family. Billecocq’s young brother-in-law, three years older than Monet, became his inseparable friend. From 1853 to 1860 the two boys spent many holidays together with the extended Billecocq family on the Normandy coast and in the countryside near Paris. Monet guided the whole clan (two generations and in-laws) in joint sketching excursions where they deferred to his much-admired skill in drawing landscapes and picturesque settings. And in 1865 it was with the Billecocqs that he celebrated his first success in public exhibitions in Paris. They continued to support him morally and financially for at least thirteen more years, for the Grand Journal lists purchases of drawings in 1877.

The Grand Journal gives other kinds of new insights into Monet’s life. Billecocq received letters from Monet during his military service in Algeria in 1861 and 1862 that prove the artist was indeed making drawings there, although heretofore this has been doubted. Those letters explain that Monet took the name “Claude” because his fellow soldiers made fun of his given name, “Oscar.” Elsewhere we learn from the Grand Journal that Monet was at Étretat in 1857, earlier than believed until now, and also that he moved to Paris in December 1859, not in 1860. Billecocq welcomed Monet’s girlfriend Camille Doncieux in 1865, and enlisted the two young people into “theatrical evenings” in Paris.

For Ganz and Kendall, the greatest value of the memoir lies in its many references to Monet’s drawing in his early years, although little of this work has survived. In two entries, for example, Billecocq writes:

Oscar did not neglect his drawing, realizing little refined sketches of the cliff, of Étretat, of the roads and the delightful small half-timbered farmhouses of Normandy with their thatched roofs. The drawings that he made were detailed, as precise as reality, and delicate, representing the houses, trees, people, etc., in the best possible manner.

As soon as he made a drawing, whatever its subject, he offered it to a member of the family. If the drawing was in a sketchbook, he removed the page and affixed his signature or his initials. We were all thrilled to receive these little drawings that we collected in albums. Oscar was generous and he was delighted to see that his work gave us pleasure. He felt useful and valued.

It’s not just that Monet deliberately slighted his early drawings (nine from about 1857 are in the Clark’s exhibition) but also that, until Ganz and Kendall set about correcting the record, critics and historians have helped give absolute primacy to the spontaneity of his work in oils.

In addition to landscapes and rural scenes, Monet drew caricatures of tourists and others in Le Havre between 1857 and 1860. From these he earned enough money, he later said, to support his move to Paris. There are about one hundred of these caricatures, in pencil or black crayon, often heightened with colors; sixteen of them once belonged to the Billecocq family. A few were copied from Parisian papers, a useful apprenticeship for a young artist determined to be modern. Several of these are familiar from earlier publications, but “The Unknown Monet” shows seventeen of these delightful, mocking caricatures to emphasize Monet’s well-developed skill in drawing and to reveal the upstart sassiness that his father deplored.

Monet made his first memorable landscape drawings around 1864. For a twenty-three-year-old artist (Seurat’s age when he embarked on Bathing Place, Asnières), they have a forceful directness and aplomb, only possible because of the years of constant drawing documented by the Grand Journal. Six of these, representing Normandy seaports and marines, are on view in Williamstown, apparently gathered together for the first time.5 For some objects Monet used his crayon delicately so that the untouched white interstices of the ribbed paper contribute to tonal grays, but in the same drawing he would use the crayon’s blunt point for dark black curves and streaks that define rocks, boats, or buildings. Cliffs and Sea, Sainte-Adresse is the most astonishing of this group (see illustration on page 30). Its dramatic foreground cliff rises upward in jagged, light-struck projections, hovering over a sea that fades to the horizon in contrasting soft grays.

In sheer quantity, most of Monet’s known drawings are pencil studies in sketchbooks, quickly made in front of his motifs. Ganz and Kendall give a lot of space to them in their catalog, reproducing three dozen pages, but in the exhibition one can see only the opened leaves of four of the sketchbooks. Nearby are computers that let the viewer examine every page, enlarging or rotating them at will, or organizing them by subject. These pages are rather slight, wispish linear drawings, as remote as one can imagine from Seurat’s magisterial drawings or Van Gogh’s intense work in black and white. The great attention The Unknown Monet gives to these pencil drawings doesn’t mean that they served as a firm base on which Monet could erect his colored canvases. They give no hints of tonal structure, color, or detail. For Monet, writes Ganz, “the page of a notebook offered a private space in which to jot down visual ideas, a place to think on paper. To Monet, such drawings were of strictly utilitarian significance, utterly lacking in commercial or even aesthetic value.”

To the modern eye, the most interesting of Monet’s quick sketches are devoted to the late water garden compositions. Even in pencil, their overlapping, scribbled ovals and horsetail lines, twisting and whirling, have the creative energies of the brushstrokes in the artist’s final decade. In the exhibition itself, three larger drawings of water lilies on blue-gray or blue-green paper have more of the character of the late paintings. Indeed, Kendall writes that the late oils are built of “lines of color.” He speculates convincingly that because Monet worked on his giant canvases in a windowless studio, he brought back the sketchbook and independent drawings he made at the edges of the pond to serve as memory clues while he painted. Some of them probably guided initial compositions, which were then developed and altered over sessions that lasted months and years.

Visitors to the Clark’s exhibition eager to see unusual Monet works will be drawn to the twenty-three pastels on view. Small though they are, they reinforce our familiar sense of Monet as colorist. After 1874, when he put seven pastels into the first Impressionist exhibition, he did not again exhibit pastels in public, perhaps fearing that they would be taken as studies for paintings whose inspirational immediacy he was so anxious to assert. He gave many of the pastels away, sometimes in a spirit of gratitude that was unusual for him. Widely dispersed, they have seldom been shown or written about, so their extended analysis in The Unknown Monet is welcome. Pastel, Kendall writes,

could be used casually, spread in gossamer-thin veils or in dense, dynamic strokes of saturated hue and built up into multi-layered crusts that rivaled brushwork. It was also susceptible to manipulation on the paper surface, merging its powdery traces with previously applied colors and excelling in the representation of clouds, shadows, and reflections.

In the early 1860s Monet’s pastels are beholden to those of Eugène Boudin, but by the late years of that decade they rival his own paintings in beauty and complexity. In pastels like The Seine Estuary, he moved his sticks of color about in floating streaks and tonal rubbings that form brilliantly hued landscapes (see illustration on page 31). After the pastels of 1860s, he waited until his campaigns at Étretat of the mid-1880s to take up pastels again. Several of these have no equivalents among his paintings; but in their foreshortened and oblique views of this sublime set of arched cliffs they are just as bold. His last batch of pastels, done in London at the turn of the century, set drama aside for the moisture-laden calm that pervades the paintings of Waterloo and Charing Cross bridges. These pastels are mostly in vaporous clouds of color that Kendall calls “evocative,” distinguishing them from the somewhat more descriptive nature of the paintings associated with them. Some of them nonetheless have prominent slashed lines, a graphic immediacy suggesting that they were studies of the bridges’ structures that could have been preparatory work for the oil paintings.

The Clark catalog has a chapter on a few drawings that Monet made to reproduce some of his paintings in the press. Unlike Cassatt, Degas, and Pissarro, for whom printmaking was so important, he never produced etchings, engravings, or lithographs. However, he made several drawings to be reproduced by a process known as Gillotage. Because this mechanical procedure could only reproduce lines, not gray tones, Monet devised linear drawings that interpret the brushwork and tones of his paintings. The last of these were done in 1891 for L’Art dans les Deux Mondes, the journal of his dealer Durand-Ruel. A number of lithographic copies of Monet’s paintings by other artists are also given their own appendix in the catalog. These round out a specialist’s analysis and suit the catalog, but they are weak works and could well have been omitted from the exhibition.

Perhaps fearing that drawings and pastels would not hold the walls by themselves, the curators put fourteen of Monet’s paintings in the exhibition. Three of these are from the Clark’s permanent collection, which is just as well since the famous nearby room of Impressionists has been stripped of most of its Monets so they could appear in the Metropolitan Museum’s current show: “The Clark Brothers Collect.”6 True, the fourteen paintings are reproduced in the catalog, where Ganz and Kendall discuss them in relation to the drawings and pastels, but the paintings themselves jump out at the viewer, their sensual surfaces marked by thick and touchable paint. Fortunately most of them are discreetly placed so as not to overwhelm the smaller pastels and drawings. However, in the last room of the show’s chronological display, two huge paintings of water lilies, one six feet high, the other six feet wide, dominate the room, and on the adjacent wall are two oils that make the adjacent pastels seem more like fragile studies than independent works.

Not enough attention has been paid to how modern book-catalogs connect with their exhibitions. Most visitors in Williamstown will first see the Clark show, and only then look at the weighty catalog (a little over four pounds). A moment’s glance shows that this is a scholarly book requiring much attention, and not a guide to the show. Ganz and Kendall are really addressing well-informed readers who are keen on drawings; their publication is so much an independent book that it doesn’t even use the canonical device of exhibition catalogs. No numbers are attached to the works on display, and there is no direct way to correlate them with the published text. Clearly the enterprise was conceived from the first as a book, with 296 reproductions neatly interspersed in a text that moves steadily along at its own pace.

The Clark’s catalog will have a long life on bookshelves, but what about those of the three other exhibitions? What happens to a catalog after an exhibition is closed? It can sit on a table as an object of beauty and as proof that its owner is up on the latest. Its reproductions (nearly always in color these days) let one recall the show, or imagine its displays if one hasn’t seen it. The other catalogs from this spring’s exhibitions have such uses but their texts will not often be consulted, with the exception of two essays in the Wildenstein catalog, one by Paul Tucker, who writes about several pictures in which Monet deployed geometric subdivisions, probably consciously, Tucker thinks, but perhaps responding to the painter’s instinctive sense of order. In a much-longer essay, Eric Zafran documents all known private and public collections and exhibitions of Monet’s paintings in the United States from the 1880s nearly to the present. Appropriate to a dealer’s catalog, Zafran praises wealthy collectors, and reproduces many period photographs showing Monets on the walls of private houses and public galleries. Supplemented by numerous quotations from contemporaneous reviews, this essay will be very useful to historians of taste and wealth in the United States, while also explaining something of the modern vogue for the artist.

While The Unknown Monet slightly overshadows the other exhibition catalogs, judged strictly as an exhibition, it cannot match the Tokyo and Wildenstein shows with their dazzling and unfamiliar examples covering the artist’s entire career. By now most museum visitors have learned that Monet’s pictures ostensibly devoted to spontaneity were actually constructed with the cunning of a gifted craftsman. At the Clark, the drawings and pastels have a more subdued presence, but they nonetheless reveal aspects of the artist’s craft that were little known. Frequent wall texts succinctly point to the catalog’s chief findings and those of us who have read the catalog will remain indebted to its detailed disclosures of the Grand Journal. The Monet we thought we knew, who practiced his craft alone, is no longer the same. Referring to Monet and his boyhood friend Théodore Billecocq, the Grand Journal gives us a more believable and a more interesting young artist:

They went vagabonding in the environs, swimming in the ocean, fishing, going out for lunch and staying out through dinner. Oscar drew a great deal and always carried with him little sketchbooks and pencils, with which he sketched pastoral landscapes and marines. In addition every scrap of paper, no matter how small, was drawn upon with country scenes, tiny seascapes, and fishermen. Every sheet of paper that came into his hands was destined for a drawing. He preferred old papers of the previous century, made from real rags. His sketches, whether in crayon or pencil, were always excellent, even if they were rapidly executed. He knew how to capture the essential characteristics of a scene.

  1. 1

    The authoritative catalogue raisonné is Daniel Wildenstein’s Claude Monet, biographie et catalogue raisonné, 5 vols. (Wildenstein Institute, 1974– 1991); its English translation (Taschen, 1996) lacks the fifth volume on drawings, pastels, and Monet’s correspondence. One handsome pastel not in the Wildenstein volumes is in the Clark exhibition: Bank of the Seine, circa 1869.

  2. 2

    See Michael Leja, “The Monet Revival and New York School Abstraction,” in Monet in the Twentieth Century, catalog of the exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Royal Academy of Arts, edited by Paul Hayes Tucker (Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 98–108.

  3. 3

    It has two precedents, my own book Monet on the Normandy Coast (Yale University Press, 1994), and the exhibition in Edinburgh in 2003, “Monet, the Seine and the Sea, 1878–1883,” curated by Richard Thomson and Michael Clarke. Taking the risks of overexposure, “Monet in Normandy” shared twelve paintings with the Edinburgh show, and its other pictures were mostly very well known.

  4. 4

    The Tokyo exhibition has two precedents whose catalogs have more substantial essays: Monet and Japan, edited by Virginia Spate and Gary Hickey (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2001), and Monet and Modernism, edited by Karin Sagner-Düchting (Munich: Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, 2001).

  5. 5

    Ganz and Kendall fail to see that another of these compositions (fig. 97), known from a lithographic copy, represents Étretat and had its own sketch, reproduced in fig. 121. The view of Étretat in fig. 135 is misidentified.

  6. 6

    The original exhibition at the Clark was reviewed in these pages by John Updike, October 5, 2006.