For more than 50 years Claude Monet has been one of my favorite artists, but while there are works I like more than others, I had never systematically analyzed his different periods vis-à-vis my taste. Three recent experiences, however, have shown me that I don’t like all Monets and led me to rate the “good” vs. the “bad.” First was the stunning show “Monet: The Early Years” in San Francisco this spring. Second was my detailed look at the Met’s 19th-century European paintings galleries. Finally, bringing it all together, was Paul Hayes Tucker’s book, Claude Monet: Life and Art.
The exhibition at the Legion of Honor was organized by the Kimbell Museum and contained a remarkable number of my favorites. They all predated what I had come to consider Monet’s “Impressionist” technique of no lines, just differently colored flecks of paint that coalesce into an impression when you stand a ways back. More often, in fact, the painting is made of bold, flat colors – more Manet, or even Japanese print by comparison. What is so wonderful in these pictures is the light. Whether it’s early spring, the heat of summer or the crystal air of winter, you not only sense the atmosphere, you want to walk out in it! My favorite works, to cite two examples, were The Promenade at Argenteuil (NGA) and The Basin at Argenteuil (d’Orsay), both from 1872, which was the end point of this show. The Magpie (1869, d’Orsay) and The Red Cape (1872, Cleveland) are familiar Christmas-card images, and rightly so. Not in the show, but ever in mind, was The Garden at Ste-Adresse (Met, 1867) in which the flowers are blotchy, but the parasols, ships, flags and figures’ clothing are precise. This was my #1 painting when the Met acquired it in 1967, and was the only artwork, albeit in poster form, that adorned my lodgings in North Africa.
Impression, Sunrise (1872, Marmottan) sends Monet off in an entirely new direction and, appropriately, was shown at the first Impressionist Exhibition in 1874. Nothing, except the disc of the sun, is distinct or sharp. The painting flirts with abstraction and does not invite your presence. Of course, there is not a clean break and Monet paints many other works closer to his early style, but from here on the air is fuzzy, not brisk, and Monet seems to be striving for a feel, not a specific place. (Places may be specific, but they’re not the point.) We see lots of fog and smoke, vague clouds and churning seas. There was an excursion to southern France in 1884 that produced wildly colored landscapes – “pinks, oranges and brilliant blues,” per Tucker – including a scene of Bordighera at SBMA that turns me off. There’s nothing as bad as Renoir, but very little that excites me.
Monet is perhaps most famous for his Series paintings of the 1890s: Grainstacks, Poplars, Rouen Cathedral, Charing Cross Bridge. How much of their reputation is based on the concept – painting the same subject under varying weather and light conditions – and how much on the paintings themselves? As an exercise in pure painting, I most admire the Rouen Cathedral (Façade) works, but they are so much more serious and less joyful than the Argenteuil, Trouville or Zaandam works from the 1870s that I respect them more than love them. And they can be bad, like the Grainstacks painting in Minneapolis that was on my list of Ten Worst Paintings at Mia.
That brings me to the 20th century and Monet’s greatest achievements, his Water Lilies. I should say his green Water Lilies, not his blue ones. There are individual paintings that are soothing, and the larger groupings, in Paris and at MoMA, are mesmerizing. I can’t think of any art that invites contemplation more than these. At the same time, though, Monet is pouring out thickly painted, multihued views of his gardens, willows and Japanese bridge that bludgeon you to no effect. I can’t help but think that these would be consigned to the dustbin of history were they not by Monet, and anything that carries his name is considered worthy. I mean, the man was in his 80s and was having trouble seeing; shouldn’t we give him a pass and just let these paintings go?
Monet produced more than 2,000 paintings, so it is presumptuous to collect his output in five categories, but at least this gives some structure to my criticism. Monet of the Early Years and the Water Lilies is one of the most pleasing and accessible artists in history, worthy of his fame. But others of his work are, to me, overrated or mainly of academic interest. Interestingly, when I picked out the best and worst painting in each gallery at the Met, I chose two Monets as best – and two Monets as worst.