Grand old man of Giverny

Monet in the 20th Century
February 5, 1999

Tom Rosenthal finds eternal appeal in the master of the ephemeral.

This book is essentially the catalogue of the exhibition being held at the Royal Academy in London from January 23 to April 18, following its autumn showing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. But it is also, like the best of such compilations, a significant book in its own right, with essays by divers hands. The longest, most scholarly and most important is by editor Paul Hayes Tucker, devoted to "The revolution in the garden: Monet in the 20th century".

The first essay, by John House, gives the key and sets the tone, "Monet: the last Impressionist". As we end this century, it is salutary to reflect that to most people Impressionism is the first great modern movement in art, which in turn leads to the relatively recent, but essential, split in all the arts, between the modern and the contemporary - even the need to have as a critical and chronological indicator the "postmodern" and its ugly contraction "pomo". Yet Impressionism, no matter how shocking it once appeared, is essentially acceptable to even the least adventurous of contemporary tastes and was, in fact, largely a 19th-century movement.

Paul Cézanne, who really outstripped it in both philosophical and aesthetic terms, died in 1906. Alfred Sisley did not even see the new century, dying in 1899, while Camille Pissarro died in 1903. Edgar Degas went in 1917 and Pierre Auguste Renoir survived until 1919, but it was Claude Monet, appropriately, who was the last to go, on December 5 1926: appropriately, because it was one of his paintings, Impression, Sunrise (1872) that gave its name to the movement, and because, beyond any reasonable doubt, he was the greatest painter of them all.

He was not the first artist to begin as a revolutionary and to end up as a grand old man, but he was probably one of the few who managed to maintain grand-old-man status while simultaneously practising and improving his art. The proof lies in the exhibition and, for those unable to visit it, in this book, which, in keeping with Yale's traditionally high standards, offers several huge fold-out colour plates that at least begin to do justice to the gigantic last lily pond paintings that were frequently two metres wide, occasionally stretching to three.

House quotes approvingly the letter Monet wrote to Evan Charteris, biographer of Monet's admirer and friend John Singer Sargent: "I have always had a horror of theories I My only virtue is to have painted directly in front of nature, while trying to render the impressions made on me by the most fleeting effects."

It is the fleeting effects that so obsessed Monet and so pleased his viewers. It is surely the fleeting effects; the changes in the colours of flowers and other vegetation as they so rapidly age; the multitudinous fluctuations of sky and weather; the conjunctions of nature with man-made objects, whether they are grainstacks or bridges - whether the bridges are his made-to-order small Japanese wooden structure at home in France, or the gigantic engineered splendours of Waterloo Bridge in London - that account for Monet's obsessional pursuit, over and over again, of certain images. It was never paucity of imagination that made him paint the same scene again and again; it was his microscopic and all-seeing vision of constant change, of the evanescent quality of the natural world that made him try so desperately to capture every facet of a familiar sight. Out of the temporary, the fleeting, Monet made his contribution to the eternal.

Monet left astounding records of familiar monuments. It is difficult to recollect the facade of Rouen Cathedral without having his many canvases superimpose themselves onto our memories. Nearer home, no one has excelled his visions of Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridges. They are never the same because of the mutating shades of climate, time of day, clouds, light and anything that played into his artistic exploration of an everyday subject, which he constantly made new. (It is perhaps worth recalling that Ezra Pound's now almost notorious exhortation "MAKE IT NEW" was uttered in 1954.) In his efforts to make things new, Monet painted 41 versions of Waterloo Bridge, 34 of Charing Cross Bridge and a mere 19 of the Houses of Parliament.

One need only look at two versions of Waterloo Bridge, one from 1902 and the other, bearing the additional title Effect of Sunlight in the Fog from 1903, to see his variety of perception in two apparently similar paintings. The later picture, done, judging by the position of the sun, at the blaze of noon is, like so much of his work, worthy of J. M. W. Turner, whom he so admired. The capturing of the reflection of the sun, so much bigger, more spread out in the water than the simple orb in the sky, the whole thing miraculously, simultaneously obscured yet enhanced by the opaque, but far from deadening, effect of the fog, is breathtaking.

Had Turner and Monet been contemporaries, what a rivalry that would have been, making that between Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse seem trivial. How lucky we are to be able to see and compare Turner's and Monet's contrasting versions of the Houses of Parliament. There is of course no proper contest as such, since one of Turner's greatest paintings - and perhaps my own favourite - is his The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (Philadelphia version). Monet's several versions, painted from a balcony at St Thomas's Hospital - where no doubt, in yet another London pea-souper, he contracted pleurisy - are of the neo-Gothic splendours of Sir Charles Barry (who had himself, like Turner, seen the old buildings destroyed by fire in 1834).

Monet's perception of London is interesting: "I adore London, it is a mass, an ensemble, and it is so simple. What I like most about London is the fog. How could the English painters of the 19th century have painted its houses brick by brick? Those fellows painted bricks they could not see. Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It is the fog that gives it its marvellous breadth. The regular, massive blocks become grandiose in this mysterious cloak."

But London is only a small part of this book, whose dominating location is Monet's house and garden at Giverny. Tucker's almost book-length essay, "The revolution in the garden", is a wonderfully detailed account of how Monet developed and expanded his home in Giverny. Eventually the house had three studios, the last, built in 1915, with 6 square metres of floor space and huge skylights, enabling him to paint what were known as the Grandes Decorations , the vast paintings of his lily pond which occupied the final decade of his life. All this might give the impression that Giverny was a kind of ivory tower, yet Monet was always practical and indeed worldly. He designed the pond and the Japanese bridge himself, buying up neighbouring land as soon as the opportunity arose so that he could expand his territory.

He was wealthy from both the sale of pictures and from shrewd investments. He was also generous, and when his friend Sisley died a pauper, he raised money for the children. He was also a dedicated and impassioned supporter of Alfred Dreyfus, corresponding about the case with Emile Zola and Georges Clemenceau - a lifelong friend. The passions of the Dreyfus affair were enormous, with the anti-Semitic Degas very much on the side of the state. Monet was so upset by Zola's trial and conviction for libel that he was unable to paint for 18 months and, although it is hard to credit, the entirely innocent Captain Dreyfus received no admission of wrongdoing from the French army until 1992, some 57 years after his death. Monet marked his approval of Clemenceau's pro-Dreyfus efforts by giving him a painting, Le Bloc ( Study of Rocks: The Creuze ), which now belongs to the Queen Mother.

Clemenceau, "The Tiger", who was prime minister of France at the close of the first world war, was also offered by Monet two paintings for the state "on the day of the Victory" and, a week later, on November 18 1918, Clemenceau went to Giverny and chose one of lilies and one of weeping willows. In 1928 Clemenceau published a book about Monet's water lilies. Somehow, it is not easy to imagine David Lloyd-George writing a book about Sargent's late portraits.

Tucker's analysis of later Monet paintings is masterly and he effectively demolishes the theories that these paintings were marred by the artist's failing sight. Monet certainly had cataracts and at first refused treatment. Eventually, with only 10 per cent vision in one eye, he had no choice but to surrender to surgery. The operations and corrective glasses (for an octogenarian) were a success and his vision almost totally restored. He wrote to a friend: "I am working as never before, I am satisfied with what I do, and if the new glasses are even better, my only request would be to live to be 100."

One of the more endearing aspects of this account of Monet's last years is of his relationships with Clemenceau and then a succession of arts ministers and civil servants over his last masterpieces, the gigantic Grandes Decorations , which the artist wanted to give to the state. Shrewd businessman that he was, he exacted a very good price: while he was alive, he made the republic buy Women in the Garden for Fr200,000 (at a time when the average Parisian labourer earned Fr1,000 a year) and agree to house his last works in a purpose-built museum.

The latter condition was fraught with problems, with cultural bureaucrats changing both architects and their minds. But in the end, a fine solution placed these huge masterpieces in a specially adapted orangery, where they make an unforgettable impact. Definitely not the work of a blind, or even half-blind artist, even if Monet worked on them virtually until his death, urged on and even, finally, threatened by Clemenceau with the withdrawal of his friendship if Monet dared to die without finishing the state's commission. As it happened, both "The Tiger" and the artist won that battle.

The book contains other interesting essays, including Michael Leja on the impact of Monet's late work on Abstract Expressionism, possibly a mixed blessing and certainly proof of the old adage that no good deed ever goes unpunished.

Monet in the 20th Century does justice to some of the greatest paintings of the first quarter of this century. It is, incidentally, an admirable adjunct to Paul Hayes Tucker's Claude Monet: Life and Art , 1995 (Yale, available in paperback at Pounds 18.95).

Tom Rosenthal is chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Monet in the 20th Century

Author - Paul Hayes Tucker, T. M. Shackleford and MayAnne Stevens
ISBN - 0 300 07749 1 and 07790 4
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £30.00 and £19.95
Pages - 300

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