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Claude Monet: 1840-1926

A Review by Mark Harden

The Art Institute of Chicago recently closed the curtain on one of the most successful art exhibits of all time. "Claude Monet: 1840-1926" was the largest and most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to the paintings of the leader of the Impressionists. One hundred fifty-nine works from around the world were brought together for this once-in-a-lifetime show. The attendance was unparalleled. During its run from July 22 to November 26, 1995, advance admissions were completely sold out, leading to the surreal spectacle of tickets for an art exhibit being scalped as if it were the Super Bowl. The show was an aesthetic as well as a popular success, with the selection of paintings offering the finest examples of Monet's work from every period of his career.

For the many art enthusiasts who were unable to attend the show, Glyphs presents a selection of eight important works, with commentary. We would like to express our appreciation to the Art Institute of Chicago for providing slides for our digital reproduction.

"Haystacks at Chailly at Sunrise", 1865
( 800 x 377 / 52 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas
30 x 60 cm (11 7/8 x 23 3/4 in.)
San Diego Museum of Art

This is an early work done a quarter-century before the famous Wheatstack series of 1890-91. In those later works, Monet succeeded in expressing the immutable essence of the Wheatstacks; here they are integrated into the overall landscape. The relative sizes of the Haystacks as well as the inclination of the low-lying clouds leads the eye forcefully toward the vanishing point of the rising sun. This leftward-leaning composition is accentuated by the exaggerated horizontality of the canvas. The muted colors and relatively finished brushwork, along with the pyramidal shapes of the haystacks, convey a sense of permanence that somewhat contradicts the depiction of something as transient as a sunrise. This is an important early reference point illustrating the artistic problems Monet worked to resolve as his style developed.

"The Red Kerchief: Portrait of Camille Monet", late 1860s - early 1870s
( 443 x 550 / 51 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas
99 x 79.3 cm (39 x 31 1/4 in.)
The Cleveland Museum of Art

The colors of this work are uncharacteristically muted. Only the red kerchief screams out, calling our attention to the figure outside. It is notable that she is specifically identified as the artist's wife in the title. The doorway or window is of course a standard painting motif; however, it is normally opened to allow a panoramic outside view. Here poor Mrs. Monet is not only locked out, but is obviously cold, grasping her coat to keep out the snowy chill. For a window composition, the perspective is surprisingly shallow. The horizon line, at Camille's elbow, flattens the picture. The result is that she is almost pushed up against the glass, as if begging to be let in from the cold. This is a disturbing canvas, expressing deep conflicts in the relationship of Claude and Camille Monet. We know that by late 1876, Monet had fallen in love with Alice Hoschede, the wife of one of his dealers, who bore his son Jean-Pierre two years prior to Camille's death.

"Breakwater at Trouville, Low Tide", 1870
( 675 x 538 / 49 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas
54 x 66 cm (21 1/4 x 26 in.)
Szepmuveszeti Museum, Budapest

Monet was the unparalleled master of painting water. Here he has succeeded in reproducing the shallowness of the ocean at low tide. The dark rock, pier, and far bank of the water recede to a vanishing point located at the smallest sailboat in the distance. The strong perspective conveys the sensation that the water has flowed out in that direction. A pair of fishermen provide points of interest in the foreground that call attention to the shallowness of the remaining water. The small patch of flat water behind the man seated on a crate reveals the figures to be standing on a sand spit. The bare feet of the standing figure can almost be heard to squish in the wet sand. On this overcast day, there are no shadows. This allows the water reflections to stand out. The sails of the boats cast very flat and stationary reflections on the water surface that contribute to the perception of shallowness. The deeper water to the right provides a subtle reflection of the clouds that is easily overlooked at first glance. By painting low tide, of course, Monet suggests the eventual return of the water, which imparts a transience to the scene. Yet he accomplishes the portrayal of this moment in time with such artistry that the setting is transformed into something timeless and eternal. That is the central paradox of Monet's work: the transfiguration of an evanescent impression into an image of everlasting permanence.

"Hotel des Roches Noires, Trouville", 1870
( 404 x 600 / 51 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas
80 x 55 cm (31 1/2 x 21 5/8 in.)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Here Monet literally flies his flag in the face of the academics of the Paris Salon. Imagine the indignation occasioned by the brazenly unfinished banner that dominates the initial impression of this painting. Today, with hindsight we can appreciate the original handling used by Monet to impart the motion and vibrancy of the flag. It can almost be heard snapping in the wet ocean breeze. Compositionally, the flag counterbalances the strong perspective lines in the right and bottom portions of the canvas. These lines, in the receding gaslights and railing on the left, the pathway in the center, and the looming hotel on the right, converge to a remarkably close vanishing point. Only the white canopy halts the recession in time to keep the viewer from tumbling into a perspectival abyss. Monet intensifies the effect by cropping the hotel on the right and by the sharp angle of sun and shadow. Coming from high over the right shoulder, the strong sunlight creates a shadow in the bottom right corner of the canvas that gives the viewer an uncanny sense that the building continues beyond the right periphery of his vision. Suddenly, the viewer is jerked into the painting, which is of course what Monet intended by giving the picture such a powerful perspective. You find yourself joining the other hotel patrons in their stroll along the waterfront, preparing to doff your hat in cheerful greeting. And you join willingly, because the artist has succeeded in constructing a scene of warmth and conviviality that is extremely inviting. The delicacy of Monet's composition can be comprehended by the mental removal of the figures from the scene. Immediately, the entire feeling of warmth is lost and the viewer's participation in the painting is revoked. Monet has achieved a masterful synthesis of subject matter and composition to evoke the sensation of a light-hearted stroll along the French coast.

"The Highway Bridge at Argenteuil", 1874
( 600 x 446 / 51 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas
60 x 79.7 cm (23 5/8 x 31 3/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

In this painting, Monet weaves a complex composition of interconnected forms. The foundation of the arrangement is four horizontal bands: the near shore, the water, the far shore and the sky. A pattern of shapes and lines is then overlaid to tie the different areas of the composition together. The dominant link is the bridge which on the pictorial level spans the river to bind the shores; on a compositional level, it spans the entire arrangement, connected to and linking all four of the basic forms in the painting. The boats provide an interesting latticework of lines with their masts and rigging. The central mast joins the water, far shore and sky, while the echoing lower mast connects visually all the way down to the unseen portion of the near shore. The cropping of this mast at the bottom of the canvas, a favorite Impressionist device, provides an especially dynamic link between the near shore (and by extension the very feet of the viewer) and the sky. The composition of this work is extremely pleasing to the eye, which is led effortlessly across the canvas and back again, into depth and returned to the picture plane, in a constant dynamic interplay of lines and forms.

"The Stroll, Camille Monet and Her Son Jean (Woman with a Parasol)", 1875
( 432 x 550 / 49 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas
100 x 81 cm (39 3/8 x 31 7/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

This masterpiece epitomizes the Impressionist concept of "the glance". It triumphs wonderfully in conveying the sensation of a snapshot in time, a stroll on a beautiful sunny day. The brushwork, feathery splashes of pulsating color, is critical in establishing this feeling of spontaneity. The portrayal of sunlight and wind also contributes to the movement in the scene. It is difficult to tell where the wispy clouds end and the wind-blown scarf of Mrs. Monet begins. The spiraling folds of her dress are a physical embodiment of the breeze that can be discerned fluttering across the canvas. The sunlight, coming from the right, provides a vigorous opposition to the wind blowing from the left. The wind and sun coalesce to form a swirling vortex in the center of the canvas, beginning with the bent grass blades and twisting through the white highlights at the back of the dress to the tip of the parasol. A singular aspect of the painting is the strong upward perspective. The view from below succeeds in silhouetting the figures against the sky, which intensifies the dynamic effect of sun and light. By depicting his son only from the waist up, Monet imparts a sense of depth to the setting. If this figure is covered up, the picture flattens to the extent that Mrs. Monet appears to be walking a grass tightrope, with the parasol now required to maintain her balance. Once Monet has outlined his figures precariously against the sky, he then anchors them firmly with color and line. The green underside of the parasol binds forcefully with the green of the hillside. The strong line of the handle leads the eye up to the green of the parasol and then, like a lightning rod, pulls the viewer back to the corresponding green of the grassy hillside. Shadows in the grass continue to draw the eye until it is anchored at the bottom of the canvas. Monet has achieved an exhilarating contrast between the swirling wind, clouds and light and the solid foundation of the hillside, with the figure of Mrs. Monet connecting the two.

"The Artist's Garden at Vetheuil", 1881
( 378 x 475 / 51 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas
100 x 80 cm (39 3/8 x 31 1/2 in.)
Private collection

This is one of the flattest landscapes ever painted. At around the same time, Cezanne was flattening his still lifes by distorting the tables to a vertical orientation. Monet stops short of distortion through a judicious choice of subject. A hillside staircase provides the form for a dramatic flattening of the painting. Monet accentuates this effect with a strong dividing line going up the right side of the stairs, between the houses and continuing up the chimney to the top of the canvas. The sky and buildings are highly geometrized forms whose flatness serves to bring the deepest part of the composition back up to the picture plane. The stairs are not individually distinguishable; if not for the children placed on them, they could be read as a cliff. The children themselves are frozen in full frontal portrayal, which again contributes to the flattening effect. There are few perspectival clues provided. No clouds are shown that would break up the solid plane of dark blue sky. No shadows can be discerned, even though the scene is bathed in sunlight. This results in a number of interesting ambiguities. Are the buildings next to each other, nearly touching? Or is one or the other to be perceived as in front? The structure on the left seems to be directly at the top of the stairs. But the blue roof on the right draws a line across the pink roof that brings it abruptly forward, hanging precariously over the hillside. Even the sunflowers are puzzling. The blossoms do not diminish in size as would be expected as they near the top of the canvas. As a result, they can be read either as a wall of plants at the base of the staircase, or as rows of vegetation terracing the hillside. This work, so unlike much of Monet's work in its flat plane composition, is a testament to the breadth of his oeuvre.

"Houses of Parliament, London", 1905
( 512 x 450 / 49 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas
81 x 92 cm (31 7/8 x 36 1/4 in.)
Musee Marmottan, Paris

The exhibition includes eight paintings from Monet's "Houses of Parliament" series. All of these paintings were done on identical sizes of canvas, from the same viewpoint overlooking the Thames from Monet's window. This series is the supreme expression of his conception of an "envelope" of interactive colored light. By providing a static subject under different light conditions, the series paintings illustrate how the changing "envelope" transforms what we perceive. This final painting of the series, however, differs from the first seven. It is titled without the additional clause used in the others to describe the momentary condition of the envelope, such as "...Sun Breaking Through the Fog" or "...Effect of Sunlight". In the earlier works, the buildings and river are inert, passively affected by the envelope of light. Here they take center stage with fantastically dynamic form. The spiraling brushstrokes of the tower sweep it upward majestically, seeming to draw contrails of the envelope into its vortex. The river, too, takes on a more aggressive aspect, the highlighted wavecrests creating a groundswell at the base of the tower that contributes to the rising effect. As the tower stretches toward the bright sky at the very pinnacle of the canvas, Monet succeeds masterfully in expressing a dazzling sense of supreme aspiration.