The Kimbell Art Museum — in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco — has assembled 55 artworks from private collections and museums around the world to create its new show, ‘Early Monet.’ But these are not the famous, later masterworks by the great Impressionist, Claude Monet. Local All Things Considered host Justin Martin sat down with Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks to ask why this exhibition would still interest fans of Impressionism and even scholars of the period. Our extended conversation:
Jerome, I like pretty pictures as much as the next person, but this new exhibition at the Kimbell – ‘Early Monet’? Monet’s an Impressionist, so this must be what? The Kimbell’s third Impressionist show in two years?
You mean they’re popular with people who otherwise don’t care much about art?
Case in point: ‘Early Monet’ brings together two fragments of an abandoned work. In exhibitions, we often see drawings for commissions that never came through for an artist, but in this case, these canvases are all that remain of a hugely ambitious work that Monet simply couldn’t finish in time for a Salon in 1865, so he gave it up. Calling them ‘fragments’ doesn’t do justice to one, a nearly 14-foot tall section of ‘Le dejeuner sur l’herbe’ — which was rolled up, forgotten and badly damaged. Both pieces belong to the Musee d’Orsay but are not usually included in a typical Impressionist or Monet exhibition. So it was a surprise to see this, which is, all at once, a fascinating oddity, an impressive piece of regrettably unfinished work and a lost shot at early fame for Monet.
So what’s the show all about?
If people know art history, they know it’s Monet’s little painting from 1872 of a foggy harbor at daybreak that gave Impressionism its name and helped ignite a furor. Monet titled his painting as an afterthought — he considered the painting more of a sketch, so he gave it a generic name: ‘Impression, Sunrise.’ A scornful critic used that title to dismiss this “gang” of younger artists. They couldn’t really paint, they were just splashing their ‘impressions’ onto canvases.
So this is where it all started?
So what do you see?
I see a strikingly realistic, like an almost beautifully somber beach scene.
Now look at this, painted only four years after that beach scene. It’s ‘Bathing at La Grenouillere,’ La Grenouillere was a popular boating and bathing spot on the Seine river. If I asked you — and you’d never seen this before — what style of art is it, what school, what era, what would you say?
I’d say Impressionism. There’s that soft focus, the kind of dappled brushstrokes with what looks like a sponge.
There’s not much detail. It looks like he’s broken them up into just flicks and dots of paint.
But then, what’s even more surprising, the same year he painted ‘Bathing at La Grenouillere,’ he painted a still life of flowers and fruit.
It’s practically a photograph.
So you’re saying, Monet wasn’t consistent, he just kept mucking about?
Here’s Shackleford: “There’s already an obsession with atmosphere, with how the air close to you looks different from the air far away. There’s already a fascination with reflection, which is surely one of the great constants in Monet is to see how do you paint reflections, how do you paint the surface of water. If you follow an idea like that through this show, it’s enormously rewarding.”
He’s right. It can be. For instance, Shackleford has grouped paintings by themes or subjects but also in a loose chronological order — so we see how Monet treats Paris street scenes or boats and ocean waves right next to each other. And it becomes apparent how life-changing Monet’s visit to England and Holland in 1870 was. It’s not simply that he escaped the futile Franco-Prussian War and the destruction of the Paris Commune. Or that he got to see paintings by J. M. W. Turner and James Whistler. Or that he met the dealer Paul Duran-Ruel who would boost his career.
It’s hard to imagine a bigger change for an artist than actually finding a helpful dealer.
After that trip, Shackleford says, you’re always seeing trains in his work — especially in his tremendous series on the Gare Saint-Lazare, when he repeatedly dissolves an entire, giant train station, steel girders and locomotives and crowds, all of them become cottony billows of smoke and steam. Even in his country landscapes, out on those sweeping horizontals at Argenteuil, you’ll find a little steamship puffing down the river somewhere or a train crossing a bridge — he always likes putting them in, Shackleford says, “because he’s found fumes are so beautiful to paint.”
This is Monet’s main process, the ultimate methodology of his art — turning trains and cathedrals, beaches and gardens into moments of shadows and light. There’s really no material difference between his train stations and his lily ponds; they all become like lovely, cloudy water with glimmers of the sky.
As the first major exhibition devoted solely to Monet’s decade of work pre-1872, ‘Early Monet’ is that rarity — an eminently satisfying show for casual museum visitors or real specialists in the field.