I came away from this extraordinary exhibition of Monet: The Late Years thinking that most of us in later years of life, having accomplished fame (he was the most successful living painter in France), having survived the death of two loved ones, and fighting a painter’s worst disability—loss of sight— would certainly opt for a comfortable “lie down” with a glass or two of Burgundy. Not Claude Monet. He not only continued to paint, he reinvented his style, a style that influenced generations that followed.
Monet (1840 – 1926), a painter of series (he painted the same subject at different times of day and in different light), is recognized as one of the most important painters in the history of art and certainly one of the most famous Impressionist painters; the movement took its name from his painting Impression, Sunrise.
Impressionist painters forever altered the way artists would observe nature and paint. Monet’s series of Rouen Cathedrals, Haystacks (or Grainstacks), Poplars, and Waterlilies, when viewed as a group, exude an almost spiritual transformation; they place the viewer in an alternate reality—a reality of the moment with the light and color as seen by the artist. No perspectives, no horizons, no analyses. The viewer becomes part of the water lily pond, a pond that lets its audience be part of it through its reflections. Look. Squint. In Monet’s own words: “A landscape does not exist in its own right. Its appearance changes at every moment; the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life—the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it’s only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.” Yes, the church of Monet allows us to see the light.
Monet: The Late Years is presented by the Kimbell Art Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It is organized by George T.M. Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimball Art Museum, and installed in San Francisco by Melissa Buron, director of the art division of the Fine Arts Museums. Over 20 museums, including the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris (about 20 paintings); The National Gallery, London; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; as well as many anonymous private donors, lent the 60 paintings (some seen in the United States for the first time) to this extraordinary exhibition.
Auction Prices for Works by Monet:
$80.5 million | Water Lily Pond | Christies 2008
$43.8 million | Nymphéas 1905 | Christies 2012
$54 million | Nymphéas 1906 | Sotheby’s 2014
$81.4 Million | The Grainstack | Christies 2016
$84.6 million | Water Lilies in Bloom | Christies 2018
Although the exhibition’s focus is the artist’s late works between 1913 and his death in 1926, for context, earlier masterpieces of water lilies and gardens from the 1890s are included. The exhibition, presented in several adjoining galleries, is arranged to show the evolution of Monet’s late style, with the first and second galleries highlighting paintings such as the Water Lily Pond (Japanese Bridge) from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. This is an overwhelmingly beautiful work of the iconic water lilies, the bridge, the shadows of the bridge, and for vertical balance, reflections of the elm trees. It’s difficult to not linger in place and behold this work alone. It would have been worth the trip. But there are many masterpieces to see. In the last gallery this same scene is reinvented with bold color and raw brush strokes.
More visual pleasure awaits with Water Lilies, The Artist’s House at Giverny, the FAMSF’s Water Lilies, the 14-foot Water Lilies (Agapanthus), and the central panel of one of the Grande Décorations. According to curator Melissa Buron, “Because of the Japanese print influence and admiration, Monet had a new way of looking at the world—you might be looking at something from above or from a tilted angle. In this painting he is thinking of the Japanese garden as a point of departure and inspiration.” The lily pond at Giverny became Monet’s muse and inspiration. He painted in the gardens daily, remarking, “These landscapes with water have become my day long obsession.” As George Shackelford points out, “There is nothing depicted above the surface of the water—what we see are reflections of trees and the clouds that are in the sky. No sky. No horizon.”
Exhibited in the last gallery are Monet’s reinterpretation of many of the earlier paintings we just saw. Monet had endured the trauma of World War I and the personal tragedies of the deaths of his wife, Alice Hoschedé, and his eldest son, Jean Monet, between 1911 and 1914; he was consumed by grief and hardly painted. He suffered from increasingly debilitating cataracts. At the age of 82, Monet wrote, “I realized with terror that I could see nothing with my right eye . . . the doctor told me I had cataracts.” (He had three operations, which restored just some of his sight.)
But with the encouragement of Monet’s friend, the Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (1841 – 1929), Monet returned to painting at his beloved estate in Giverny and began what would be known as one of his greatest masterpieces, the Grandes Décorations, a series of monumental water lilies that he eventually (and after much negotiation) donated to the French government. The murals are now permanently installed at the Musée de l’ Orangerie, Paris. Another huge triptych of Water Lilies (1914 – 1926) is at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Paul Claudel, a playwright, upon seeing these water lilies in 1927, noted, “Monet made himself a painter of the things we can’t see.” Clemenceau wrote of Monet, “He’s a man madly striving for the realization of the impossible.” Right he was. When he returned to painting, Monet wanted to continue to encapsulate light.
The light he saw was now different. The effects of his cataracts can most likely be seen in the late paintings on view. (Art historians differ on this analysis.) Since Monet was established and his reputation solid, he continued to paint just what he saw and how he saw it at the time; as his light and his colors become bolder, his brush strokes became broader and more dramatic, even radical. There is an intensity not present in his earlier works with whites, greens, and blues. His painting became even more abstract as he began to use more reds and yellows. He reinvented his style!
Monet was quoted as saying, “Color is now my day-long obsession, joy, and torment.” In The Artist’s House Seen from the Rose Garden and The Japanese Bridge, and especially Weeping Willow, his painting took on a never before seen forceful abstraction with layered brushstrokes and raw applications of color upon color—techniques that influenced a generation of Post-Impressionist, Expressionist, and Abstract Expressionist movements. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, and Ellsworth Kelley have discussed Monet’s impact on the modern art world. It has been suggested that with his feverish desire to capture light with bold and raw color, he was attempting to conquer his own darkness as well.
Question: Would you be able to identify the reimagined late-period Japanese Bridge or Weeping Willow were they exhibited in another gallery, without context or explanation, as paintings by Monet? I think many would not identify them as works by the renowned Impressionist, having been exposed to the luminous water lilies and gardens of his earlier years. Yet, even taken out of context, these are powerful works of art, art with confidence, raw beauty, and pure vision of line and color with a foresight of movements to come.
Hurry and see this magnificent exhibition. You will have the unique opportunity to view nature through the eyes of a master. Many of the private loans in this exhibition may never be available again.
Monet: The Late Years, a hardcover Kimbell Art Museum Publication, is available at the de Young & Legion of Honor Museum Store.