Monet by Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge could be called a “cocktail table book,” but it is far superior to most books of that kind, and for this reason deserves attention. It is also the latest in a flurry of publications devoted to the famous Impressionist and prompts an examination of his astonishing vogue. During the past decade Monet has supplanted Cézanne as the Impressionist favored by artists, critics, and historians, if we are to judge only by the number of articles, books, and exhibitions.
A book meant to be displayed is by definition as much a commodity as a piece of writing, and at $75, Monet lives up to the description. It has 125 excellent color plates, several of them luxurious fold-outs that display images as wide as 27 inches (the book itself is 13 x 10 1/2 inches and weighs slightly over five pounds). About 140 more paintings are reproduced in black and white, and there are nearly one hundred documentary photographs. Robert Gordon conceived the book, and is responsible for most of the illustrations, as well as the accompanying citations and short descriptive paragraphs on biography, style, or subject. Andrew Forge is, in effect, his guest, and Forge’s text appears on only 125 pages. It frequently cohabits on the page with Gordon’s paragraphs, which invariably have a very different tone, and at times one must seek its continuation by leafing through as many as eighteen intervening pages of Gordon’s album.
Robert Gordon has published several articles on Monet’s Giverny gardens and on the famous cycle of Waterlilies in the Orangerie. He is what the French call a documentaliste, and in this book he reproduces for the first time the abortive plans of 1920 for the exhibition rotunda that Monet wanted to build next to Rodin’s museum in Paris. Gordon’s selection of reproductions is consistent with the packaging of a picture book: one is encouraged to dip into it here and there, to sample a variety of landscape views, interiors, famous persons, family members, and, of course, paintings, but not to pause long over any one of them. The generous reproductions offer a well-balanced summary of Monet’s output, but most have nothing to do with Andrew Forge’s interpretative text (whereas his text lacks references to the plates, so that one has to match his titles with captions in the hope of landing on the same picture). Gordon includes thirty-one reproductions from Monet’s key years in Argenteuil in the 1870s, but Forge gives Argenteuil only a few scattered paragraphs. There are fourteen of the extraordinary Belle-Isle pictures of 1886; Forge limits his comments to one paragraph.
Taken together, Gordon’s squibs and the connecting tissue of Forge’s prose provide a potted biography of Monet, but, true to its format no footnotes or exacting references disturb the reader. There is not even a plan of Giverny, to which so much attention is paid. In Gordon’s copious documentation, one senses repeatedly the hand of the collector of documents who regards each item as self-sufficient. Landscapes do not exist as material places with unique local and regional characteristics, but as mere motifs. “There is something sentimental and dated about this motif,” Gordon writes of the several distant views of the Church of Varengeville of 1882, and he adds gratuitously, “Taste was never Monet’s strong point.”
His discomfort with this “motif” would seem to derive partly from not understanding the site. The distant building is a mariner’s church, its cemetery full of crosses marking the substantial human losses along this rough coast. Monet positions the viewer on a rise to the east, looking across an unkempt moor formed of thick branches and gorse (it is difficult to cross, even in heavy boots). The mass of the church imitates the mass of the rock and earth to its right; both overlook the Channel, and the light from the west rakes across the moor, creating a wraith-like accompaniment to a scene that a native of this region would instantly understand.
Andrew Forge also uses the word “motif” frequently, but since his point of view is that of an artist principally concerned with how pictures are made, we learn a great deal from his self-imposed limitations. He is another of those wonderful British artists—Lawrence Gowing comes readily to mind—who write about painting with a visual acuteness and a passion that most historians lack or suppress. Among other things, Forge has written a book on Robert Rauschenberg, introductions to exhibitions devoted to Kenneth Martin, William Tucker, and Jack Tworkov, and two essays on Monet. In his new text he stresses the features of Monet’s art that have dominated criticism since the 1950s: the dissolving of edges, the invention of new artistic conventions based more on pure color than on light and dark, and the turbulent, nearly abstract surfaces of his late paintings. He simply does it better than most of his predecessors.
Monet is fascinated by subjects that are ragged and disheveled, not so much so that he can whip them into shape as because they can become for him the instruments of oceanic spread. The melting ice on the flood, the creepers and vines of the Vallée de Sasso, a curtain of flickering leaves on the banks of the Epte have this in common: they have no apparent linear structure. They become the instruments for reflection on the movements of the eye and its search for structure.
In this last phrase we spot the artist who grew up with Abstract Expressionism, whose intelligence tells him that Monet was responding to things seen, but whose interest lies in the process of painting and only incidentally in the subject. In a fine passage on Rising Tide at Pourville (1882), in the Brooklyn Museum, Forge writes of the diagonal waves that echo the angle of the cliff and its stone cabin, but gives no hint that in this structure is embedded Monet’s sense of the sea beating against the cliff and its scruffy, wind-blown growth, of the beleaguered cabin acting as a human outpost on a squally sea. The cliff and the cabin are squeezed into the lower right corner, and the normal left-to-right sweep of our eye helps the furrowed surf attack this outcropping. That this is not a sentimental reading of subject, but an interpretation of structure, is revealed by looking at other paintings of the same cabin and cliff, in which the cabin is on the left or in the center, surmounting a calm sea, not besieged by it.
If the reader sometimes regrets Forge’s lack of interest in subject matter, she or he will be compensated by the sheer intelligence of the text, graced by constant interjections that ring true. Forge sees that Monet used geometric proportions to organize his surfaces and that this was perfectly compatible with an effect of spontaneity. He recognizes that in many ways Monet had the outlook of a city person with a weekender’s preference for riverside leisure, and with the “distanced scanning” that rendered country figures anonymous and denied them the presence desired by Millet or Van Gogh. Forge is the first, I believe, to make such a clear assessment of Monet’s figures:
Nothing in Monet’s work suggests that he had any deep interest in the figure as such, either as an autonomous psychological being or as a focus of desire…. The nude is unknown in his work. Libido flows elsewhere. Neither his portraits nor his family groups betray the slightest interest in carnal grace. From this point of view his sense of form is not only unresponsive but utterly undistinguished. There is nothing of that passionate rifling of detail—the articulation of a wrist, the juncture of head and neck, the quality of a hairline—that conveys so much of Cézanne’s eros; none of that sense of the luxury of form that comes from Renoir whether he is looking at a cheek, a breast, a bowl of fruit, or a summer meadow….
The very best of Forge’s text, fully one-third of it, is reserved for the late paintings, those which inspired the turnabout in Monet’s critical fortunes after 1950. He gives by far the most convincing account yet written of the probable relationship between Monet’s failing eyesight and the extravagant palette and surfaces of the late work. Of two paintings of the Japanese Bridge he writes,
The light behind the bridge flickers up and down in twists and swirls of burnt gold and acid yellow. At the foot of the canvas the water spreads in yellow. Somehow the bridge finds its space within this zone of yellow as into a tightly compressed shallow relief. A red moves across the entire surface, burrowing into the depth of shadow on the left, dragging the bridge, skipping, twirling, falling in the dense air between the bridge and the water, a movement in space rather than a picturing, recklessly at one with the picture surface, as if the whole extent of the picture, its furrowed front, had been felt at brush length to be the place.
The late paintings that Forge interprets so movingly were based upon Monet’s remarkable water garden at Giverny. Already at the turn of the century, visits to Giverny were widely reported by journalists, collectors, dealers, and artists. Robert Gordon cites the British critic Wynford Dewhurst, whose description of the painter (which I here abridge slightly) is typical:
Monet is, perhaps, seen at his best when, cigar in full blast, he strolls around his “propriété” at Giverny, discussing the mysteries of propagation, grafts and colour schemes, with his small army of blue-bloused, sabotted gardeners.
Each line of his sturdy figure and determined feature, and the glint of his keen blue eyes, betoken the grit within. He is of those men who would succeed in any line of life, and despite all—strong man, strong painter. Dressed in soft khaki felt hat, khaki jacket, lavender-coloured silk shirt, open at the neck and frilled as to cuff and front, leathern belt, wide drab pantaloons tapering to the ankle; a stout pair of untanned cow-hide boots, and heavy cane, completes a most comfortable and practical, albeit somewhat dandyish “get-up.”
Dewhurst’s presentation of Monet as a self-proud property owner rings true. We now know that he lived quite well in the 1870s, at Argenteuil, all the while cadging money from friends and patrons. In both his rented villas there he lavished time on beautiful gardens, and painted his wife and son surrounded by flowers, as though he were providing them with the domain of a rich propriétaire. He moved from Argenteuil in 1878, leaving local shopkeepers begging for their money (he only resolved the last of those debts fifteen years later). He settled in rented quarters at Vétheuil, further down the Seine, together with the wife and children of his erstwhile patron, the bankrupt Ernest Hoschedé. Again he built an elaborate garden, this time across the road from his modest and crowded quarters. In 1883, he moved for the last time, to a rented house in Giverny, still further down the Seine on the edge of Normandy. In the next few years he played one dealer off against another (he treated Durand-Ruel, his first dealer, very high-handedly), and adroitly calculated his opportunities for exhibitions. He was by far the most aggressive and clever of the Impressionists in managing his market, and reached the pinnacle of success in the early 1890s when he could impose his prices on dealers.
He bought the Giverny house in 1890, and by 1894 owned also the well-watered meadow across the flanking road and branch railway; it was here that he carried out the successive alterations that would be the envy of a present-day earth artist. Over the vociferous opposition of local washerwomen and farmers, he won permission to redirect the meadow’s stream through sluices, to serve his expanded pond and its elaborate plantings. The army of gardeners that Dewhurst saw were abetted by other workmen over the next two decades in a constant redesign and expansion of the original building and grounds, including the famous Japanese bridge, a succession of three studios (the last was the huge bunker-like building that housed the waterlily cycle), a hothouse, greenhouses, and a photo studio.
This was surely the work of the impoverished son of a relatively unsuccessful businessman who was determined to make good: a bourgeois version of an aristocratic estate. Admirers of Monet’s painting can well regard his obsession with the gardens as serving his art, but the residents of Giverny could look on this vast expenditure of money and energy, this encroachment on neighboring fields, this bracketing of a public way, as the work of a new landholder who used the excuse of the high poetry of his art to construct a château-like estate.
All of this activity was symbolic of industrial man’s mastery over nature, placing it at his beck and call. Who is it that said, “nothing so patently artificial as the ‘natural man’ “? Monet’s planting carefully hid the road and the railway, which he also kept out of sight in his pictures. Giverny separated Monet from the city, where his market was, much as the well-to-do elsewhere have built their suburban retreats. It was artificially incubated “nature,” full of exotic foreign plants (opposed by the locals, who recognized in them the sign of the interloper), ceaselessly managed: one gardener was assigned the task of pruning and rinsing the water-lilies.
For Monet as for most modern men, nature was passive and feminine, meant to be conquered. The absence of “carnal grace” which Andrew Forge notes in Monet’s figures was compensated for by treating these well-managed organic forms as feminine receptors of man’s transforming hand. Already in 1889, his friend and fellow gardener Octave Mirbeau had described Monet’s paintings as “living nature, conquered and tamed,” conducive of “dream, with its warm breath of love and its spasms of joy.” In 1886, when adjusting himself to the unfamiliar rocky coast of Belle-Isle, Monet had called the sea a whore (la gueuse), and for waterlilies he preferred the evocative nymphéas to the more common nénuphars (he also called them “the fairies of my pond”).
Monet was very much the center of this patriarchal estate. He regulated its hours and seasons, its menus; he presided over the excursions in his fleet of automobiles and over the marriages of his stepdaughters. The women of the household used to dread his pouting retreats and his fits of rage when he would literally burn piles of paintings. They became adept at interpreting signs of the master’s improvement, passing the word so as to facilitate a return to normalcy. Monet was the star, also, of a larger circle. His fame attracted hosts of resident artists to Giverny—according to Claire Joyes (in Monet at Giverny, to which Gordon and Forge contributed) 1 there were about forty by 1914—and they altered the cuisine, the architecture, and the economy of the village. Others came and were photographed with Monet, either in his studio or by the nymphéas pond: dealers, art critics, collectors from the US and Japan, government figures, and academicians (the Académie Goncourt inaugurated the Nymphéas studio in 1916). Clemenceau, an intimate friend, was often there, and cajoled Monet into donating the Nymphéas group, opened to the public in the Orangerie a year after Monet’s death in 1926. (As a quid pro quo, however, Monet had demanded two hundred thousand francs from the government for his early Women in the Garden).
All of this might seem mere back-ground to Monet’s paintings, but that is not so. The Giverny estate and its master’s biography have a fame somewhat independent of the paintings, but absolutely vital to their appreciation. They form the secular arm of the poetic state established in the art. The Gordon–Forge book is the perfect proof of this. Its dust jacket states, “This book is an hommage to Monet,” and there is no reason to doubt it. The jacket, frontispiece, and tailpiece have photographs of Monet in the Giverny garden; there are seven photographic portraits of him, two oil portraits, and twenty-one photographs of him (often with family or visitors) in the garden or in one of his studios. There are a further twenty-four photographs of the estate.
Monet’s image and the Giverny gardens have rivaled the late paintings themselves since about 1975. Claire Joyes’s Monet at Giverny of that year has twenty-four reproductions of paintings, but sixty-five portraits and other photographs of Monet, and a further forty-eight of the Giverny estate. In 1978, the remodeled estate (willed to the Institut de France by Michel Monet in 1966) was opened to the public. Its principal subsidizer was the late Lila Acheson Wallace, heir to the Reader’s Digest fortune, and standing behind it were two members of the Institut, Gérald van der Kemp, who had masterminded the campaign to save Versailles, and Daniel Wildenstein, the art dealer and author of the ongoing catalogue raisonné of Monet’s work. That same year the Metropolitan Museum sponsored the exhibition Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism, dedicated to Lila Acheson Wallace and to the opening of the Giverny gardens. The catalog, whose principal text was by Mr. Wildenstein, was another iconographic homage; it reproduced thirty-four photographs of Monet and his estate.
Two years later, the big spring exhibition at the Grand Palais was Hommage à Claude Monet.2 The catalog’s frontis-piece was a montage of five photographs of the master of Giverny, and its concluding section showed three oil portraits and eighteen photographs of him. In 1983 there were two more Giverny events—Samuel Shore’s album of color photographs of the gardens (subsidized by Mrs. Wallace, with prefaces by Gérald van der Kemp, Daniel Wildenstein, and John Rewald, the distinguished Impressionist historian),3 and the enterprising, if naively installed exhibition at the Centre culturel du Marais, Claude Monet, au temps de Giverny. In its catalog, Monet appears in no fewer than thirty-seven photographs, and there are twenty-one more of the estate.4 At the end of that year, the Gordon–Forge hommage appeared.
All this succeeds in skewing Monet’s career toward his late work, so thoroughly identified with his gardens. We moderns agonize over our separation from nature and seek contact with it (“her!”) as release into the realm of the soothing and the beautiful. What better sign of nature than flowers, those innocent vessels of beauty? It is no accident that several glossy magazines fond of gardens have featured both Giverny and Monet’s paintings, including the aptly named Galerie-Jardin des Arts: there is a steady commerce among gardens, works of art, and picture books. Yet we are not so simple-minded as to wish unmediated representations of blossoms and plants, and this is why Monet’s art is especially appealing. It is nature first well shaped in its garden environment, then transposed into paintings of strong color, indefinite depths, and scumbled surfaces, whose lack of clearly read shapes responds to our troubled awareness. The fact is that we never really escape to the suburban garden or to the realm of the nature-painting. We need to be pulled in that direction to prove that we have art, beauty, and nature in us, despite our industrialized lives.
That the vogue for Giverny goes back to Monet’s reevaluation by the modernists of the 1950s is abundantly clear from the tone of most of the recent texts. The waterlilies are especially favored because they seem to be a nearly subject-less, “pure” nature, easily set aside in favor of Monet’s painterly surfaces. We are told repeatedly that they were only a kind of pretext for “pictorial researches” that led to “paintings of the unreal,” evidently congenial to modern artists. So is their production in series. The emphasis is placed on the degree to which the pictures are similar, whereas Monet regarded the differences among them as their very raison d’être. In them he transcribed the most evanescent reflections of passing clouds and swaying branches, intercoupled with the floating vegetation and the undulant biosphere beneath the surface. One need only look at the writings of Monet’s close friends Clemenceau, Geffroy, or Mirbeau to sense the artist’s passionate involvement with the forms that he planted and tended by hand, and with the play over their surfaces of the light, color, shadow, and breeze that were not subject to his control (hence, in part, his passion).
Only a lout would regret the distortions of Monet that were such a creative off-shoot of Abstract Expressionism. It was thanks to this altered view that historians, as usual a pace or two behind artists and critics, began to see that Monet had built his art as much on studio work as upon the vaunted plein-airisme. We all look at the past through odd-shaped crystals whose facets reveal only certain things useful to us at the time. Cézanne had earlier served Cubism and abstraction by means of an equally selective emphasis, and his obsession with natural appearances had also been disregarded. He was Mr. Form, and while he was in the ascendant, Monet was Mr. Formless. The shift after 1950 simply redefined what “form” was, and Monet came rapidly forward. Instinct, spontaneity, the large gestures of the passionate master of Giverny, his troubled, sometimes inchoate surfaces, all these appealed to postwar painters. The huge waterlily panels were not easel paintings, but environments, chapels of mediation that Rothko must have admired. They were created—it was not thought to be a paradox—by a powerful man who subjugated nature, and whose ambition, well documented from 1898 on, had been to use his private water garden to create paintings that would decorate a public space.
Let us therefore rejoice that Monet has found a solid place in the history of art, and only wince a little bit that Giverny’s renown has almost eclipsed that of Barbizon, Arles, Pont-Aven, and the Jas de Bouffan. Fortunately Monet painted other spots, and Paul Tucker’s splendid Monet at Argenteuil5 is perhaps as much a straw in the wind as the beautiful Gordon–Forge book. Besides, Honfleur, Le Havre and Sainte-Adresse, Bougival, Paris, Trouville, Amsterdam, Vétheuil, Pourville, Etretat, Belle-Isle, Bordighera, Antibes, the Creuse Valley, Rouen, London, and Venice await their historians. Monet was courting fame in each of those places, and deserves it. We still have much to look forward to.
October 11, 1984
Two Continents, 1976. ↩
Roget’s Thesaurus lists under “homage” “duty, fidelity, obedience, praise, respect, reverence, submission, worship.” ↩
Aperture, 1983. ↩
John House’s essay, one of the many texts in this well-stuffed catalog, is the most brilliant yet written on the water garden paintings, albeit limited to the cycle exhibited in 1909. ↩
Yale University Press, 1982. ↩