Claude Monet, 'Water Lilies (Agapanthus),' c. 1915-26. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Claude Monet, 'Water Lilies (Agapanthus),' c. 1915-26. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Monet, Monet, Monet Makes the World Go 'Round

Monet, Monet, Monet Makes the World Go 'Round

“You may think you know everything there is to know about Monet,” teased curator Melissa Buron at the press preview for the de Young’s Monet: The Late Years, implying shocking, revelatory secrets to be learned within the subterranean depths of the museum’s special exhibition galleries.

Pshaw, I thought. While not everyone is an Impressionist scholar (that descriptor would be reserved for George Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum and co-curator, with Buron, of the exhibition), c'mon, we all know Claude Monet. That is, in whatever way one can know an artist through thousands of reproductions of his or her most famous works—on mugs, T-shirts, coasters and, befitting our current local forecast, umbrellas.

Anonymous photographer, 'Monet in His Garden at Giverny,' 1921.
Anonymous photographer, 'Monet in His Garden at Giverny,' 1921. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

But there’s a reason why the de Young is opening this Monet show just two years after the Legion of Honor hosted Monet: The Early Years, and it’s not solely because the museum knew it would bring in hordes of paying attendees. (As board president Dede Wilsey enthused during the press preview, “Anything Impressionist, and anything Monet," she said, “just reeks of success.”)

Simply put, seeing Monet’s paintings in person is exhilarating—especially because we think we know his work so well. Reproductions in books or on screens can't capture his scintillating combinations of color, his buildup of oil paint on a canvas, the speed implied in his frenetic brushwork, or the vertiginous feeling of standing before a five-and-a-half-foot-tall painting and losing sense of which way is up.

Claude Monet, 'The Japanese Footbridge,' 1899.
Claude Monet, 'The Japanese Footbridge,' 1899. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

The majority of the pieces on view at the de Young come from the final decade of Monet’s painting career, 1914 to 1924, when the French Impressionist was in his 70s and 80s (he died at age 86 in 1926). All were made in Giverny, at his bucolic residence in northern France surrounded by a meticulously maintained garden and man-made pond. As an introduction to “what we think we know,” the exhibition begins with a sampling of paintings from the late 1800s and early 1900s: images of the Seine, a Japanese footbridge, Monet’s beloved water lilies. By comparison, these canvases come to seem sedate and restrained in the rooms that follow.

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Suddenly, in the second gallery, the paintings quadruple in size. Vertical canvases depict water lilies upon the surface of Monet’s pond, surrounded by reflections of trees and clouds. But the horizon line is gone, and with it a clear understanding of what’s above the water and what’s below. (In his catalog essay, Shackelford says of one of Monet’s works: "the point of view seems to be that of a fish.")

Claude Monet, 'Water Lilies,' 1916–1919.
Claude Monet, 'Water Lilies,' 1916–1919. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Here, I’ll admit, I learned something new about Monet. It appears the painter was so obsessed with maintaining the clarity of his pond’s water, and the brilliance of his multi-hued water lilies’ blossoms, that a gardener was tasked with regularly skimming the pond’s surface; lilies were dunked each day to wash off any dust. Eventually, Monet would even pay to pave the roads surrounding his residence—to cut down on all that pesky dust.

In 1912, Monet was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes, and it wasn’t until 1923 that he underwent surgery to correct some of his vision loss. The cataracts affected not just his ability to see details, but his ability to perceive colors. In the paintings leading up to and after his operations (he ultimately had three), the artist’s palette shifts dramatically. Collectors at the time called the colors “atrocious and violent.” It’s as if Giverny, and its lush foliage, is on fire.

Claude Monet, 'The Japanese Bridge,' c. 1923-25.
Claude Monet, 'The Japanese Bridge,' c. 1923-25. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Nearly 100 years later, Monet: The Late Years encourages a view of these final paintings not as the work of a man in physical decline, but of an artist passionately working to spend his remaining energies and final years putting paint to canvas. Would that we all had the same dedication to our chosen fields.

And beyond Monet's personal history, there's an enduring fact: the optical trick of viewing a Monet both up close (a flurry of brushstrokes that caused Alfred Barr to call him the grandfather of Abstract Expressionism) and from afar (aha, a weeping willow!) never, ever loses its thrill. It is, as Wilsey says, “the magic of Monet.”

'Monet: The Late Years' opens Saturday, Feb. 16 and is on view through May 27, 2019 at the de Young Museum. Details here.

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