Spontaneous genius: Monet’s Portrait
of a Woman (1895).
a New Light
Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.,
through Sept. 16
now you’ve probably seen a huge billboard or two proclaiming
how proud the Clark is of its Monet exhibition and how much
they want you to come see it. With such a big-name draw, it’s
easy to wonder if the curators have just dug some obscure
scratchings out from the vaults. But no—as unfair as it may
be, Monet didn’t seem capable of creating anything less than
works of genius, even as a teenager. This is the real thing,
a world-class show of almost 100 fine and infrequently shown
caricatures, drawings, pastels, and paintings. It is a show
meant to change the way we see the artist and his life’s work.
Nature boy, plein air magician, spontaneous master—that is
the stereotype of Monet, that makes him seem “one of the most
known” artists, as curator Richard Kendall (the exhibit was
also curated by James A. Ganz) said in a recent lecture he
gave at the Albany Institute of History and Art.
So it is something of a relief to see how much drafting and
careful study went into creating his illusions of quickly
changing light. We also learn how much Monet used newly accessible
print media to promote his paintings. Far from disturbing
the impact of his great works, this information makes them
all the more remarkable. This is the first time so much material
has been made available from the, shall we say, “unplugged”
Monet—the man whose painting gave “impressionism” its name.
The first two rooms alone, which contain Monet’s earliest
works, could easily stand on their own as an exhibit.
His numerous early caricatures come as a delightful surprise,
since later his interests ran in the opposite direction—away
from the human form and from precise lines. Yet his unmistakable
joie de vivre is in Caricature of Jules Didier, Butterfly
Man (1858), which makes fun of a nature artist by transforming
him into a giant bug. Also loud and clear is the young Monet’s
energetic competition with early role models such as the famous
Maybe it was all that truancy and fresh seaside air of Le
Havre that promoted so much talent. Whatever it was, Alley
of Trees, Gournay (1857), shows the artist’s daring already
at age 16 as well as his fine, well-trained hand. The pencil
drawing juxtaposes nature’s chaos in a canopy of trees, suggested
by empty space at the top of the page bordered by loose sketching,
with the human desire for order in the tighter, shaded tree
trunks lined up in the alley.
With so much to linger over, make sure you browse at a computer
station the more than 300 drawings digitized from Monet’s
sketchbooks (owned by the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris). In
one of these notebooks, The Gare Saint-Lazare (1877)
shows the complex vitality in Monet’s sketch work, while other
drawings in these private books, like Fleur d’Iris
(1914) or sketches in preparation for Water Lilies,
make boldly simple statements.
What this exhibit teaches us, though, is to look beyond Monet’s
supposed simplicity. As Kendall explained, works such as the
pastel landscapes Twilight, After the Rain,
and Nightfall (1865-70), are essentially about that
evanescent quality—time. These pastels, of the same landscape
dominated by a swirling sky in different moods, are precursors
for Monet’s later fascination with works in series (such as
Water Lilies and Grain Stacks). Of course, time
is difficult to capture: “And then there’s this river which
falls, then rises again; one day it’s green, then it’s yellow;
just recently it was dried up, but it will be a torrent again
tomorrow after the dreadful amount of rain falling at the
moment,” wrote Monet in a letter of 1889 about painting en
plein air. The themes of time and change obsessed Monet’s
entire generation, poised as they were on the brink of the
high-speed modern era.
Adept at the emerging arts of mass media, Monet didn’t rest
on his laurels. The penultimate room is dedicated to Monet’s
drawings for journals like Gazette des beaux-arts,
made after he finished paintings such as View of Rouen
(1872) and The Two Anglers (1882) (also on display).
Yet for all the information that attempts to unmask Monet,
there is something mysterious that remains. Look at his Portrait
of a Woman (circa 1890-95), a haunting red-chalk portrait
of an un known subject (possibly his first wife, Camille Doncieux,
or his stepdaughter, Suzanne Hoschedé). Why and even exactly
when he made this, we don’t know, nor can we know what was
behind the peculiar combination of confidence and interrogation
in the wo man’s gaze.
And then, in the final room, we get the dazzlers, those paintings
and pastels that knock you out with blues, greens, pinks,
all at once: Waterloo Bridge almost completely washed
out by the fog, Rouen Cathedral, Façade (1894) looming
(a preparatory drawing is nearby on display), and a dizzying
loss of perspective in two Water Lilies (1918 and 1916-19).
What is up, what is down? Ultimately, something besides technical
mastery takes over, and all we can do is feel gratitude in
the presence of so many beautiful reflections.
peripheral vision this week-