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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.

  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).

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