Claude Monet is the painter who gave the Impressionists their name, though it wasn’t his intention — nor was it meant as a compliment.
Monet and a band of like-minded artists — including Edgar Degas, Pierre-August Renoir, and Paul Cezanne — snubbed by the official art world put on their own exhibition in the spring of 1874. They called themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc.
But a critic and satirist seized on a painting by the 33-year-old Monet, “Impression, Sunrise,” called it “unfinished wallpaper” and dubbed the lot of them “Impressionists.” The group took up the moniker and it stuck, defining the late 19th Century French style of painting that is perhaps the world’s most recognizable art.
The largest retrospective of Monet’s work in 25 years opens at the Denver Art Museum Monday and runs through Feb. 2. The show, done in collaboration with the Museum Barberini, in Potsdam, Germany, has assembled 100 of the artist’s works and 120 paintings in all from 80 collections in 15 countries.
And while many an art lover may have seen some of Monet’s iconic works — water lilies, haystacks, poppies, the British Parliament, a woman with a parasol — this exhibition offers a deep dive into his landscape painting.
It traces the remarkable arc not only of his life — from penniless and obscure to renowned and well-to-do — and also the evolution of an artist from a simple picture of a farmhouse to a canvas deep, dark, unknown and perhaps unknowable.
“Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature” focuses on the artist’s landscape painting, a subject he was committed to more so than any other Impressionist.
Indeed, Impressionism arrived at a time of modernization and urbanization, where a newly renovated Paris was the jewel of cities, and many of the works celebrate cityscapes, theaters, cafes and the leisure of the bourgeoisie.
There are a few paintings in the exhibition offering Monet’s nod to the city, but Monet said he always wished to be “living quietly in a corner of nature.”
The initial idea of Impressionism was to move away from representing a subject to concentrating on form, color and light in the moment.
“Try to forget what objects you have before you — a tree, a house, a field, or whatever,” Monet said. “Merely think, ‘Here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow,’ and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own impression of the scene before you.”
But the work wasn’t random, nor was it unfinished wallpaper, Angelica Daneo, DAM’s chief curator and curator of European Art before 1900, said in an interview with The Colorado Sun. “Monet was deceptively spontaneous,” she said. “He was extremely methodical and every element was key. Remove an element and the composition falls apart.”
Born in 1840, Monet grew up in Le Havre, the port city on France’s Normandy coast. He went to the city’s secondary school of the arts, took some drawing lessons and was befriended by Eugene Boudin, an artist who taught him painting en plein-air – outdoor painting techniques. A Boudin painting is included in the exhibition.
En plein-air was an important aspect for Impressionists, but would be a major and enduring element for Monet.
Monet first won recognition with his 1866 painting, “The Woman in the Green Dress.” The 19-year-old model, Camille Doncieux, would become the artist’s wife.
Dogged by money problems — variously depending on an allowance from a widowed aunt, a wealthy patron, loans from other artists — Monet hit a low point in 1877 when his friend, the department store magnate and art collector, Ernest Hoschedé, went bankrupt and fled to Belgium to escape creditors.
Monet moved his wife and two children to the rural village of Vétheuil in1878. The Monets shared a house with Alice Hoschedé and her six children. Monet plunged into painting the countryside. In 1879, Camille died from cancer — another blow.
The exhibition has several of the Vétheuil paintings, some light and colorful, others somber, dramatic landscapes devoid of people.
Vétheuil marked a turning point for Monet. When he left in 1881, both his art and the world of art were changing. Alice Hoschedé also likely became his mistress. They married after Ernest Hoschedé died.
By the 1880s Impressionism was running out of gas. Its surface and ephemeral nature left artists restless. Neo-impressionists looked to integrate scientific studies on color and light. The Fauves embraced wild color. Renoir struck out on his own, rejecting all schools, and Cezanne sought to deal with nature through the cylinder, sphere and cone — a precursor of the 20th Century Cubists.
And what of Monet? “He always knew where he wanted to go,” DAM’s Daneo said. The machinations in the art world, she said, had little effect on him.
Monet sought to address the fleeting nature of Impressionism through the monumental effort of painting the same motif over time in a series of canvases as light, weather and seasons changed — making change the permanent characteristic.
The first of these efforts, in 1890 and 1891, is a set of 15 paintings of a haystack or grainstack. Other series include the entrance to the Cathedral in Rouen, a train station in Paris and the Charing Cross Bridge in London.
Monet traveled more, and more widely, than most Impressionists. He went to England, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy and the Mediterranean and Normandy coasts – and exhibition goers get to go along with him and see how his technique and vision change.
One of the early paintings in the show, the 1863 “Farmyard in Normandy,” shows the 23-year-old painter working in subdued and realistic colors and restrained brushwork. By 1886, painting a field of tulips in Holland, Monet’s sure swipe of the brush creates a bright, red row of flowers and in 1895’s “Houses in the Snow,” from a Norwegian journey, the picture is dominated not by the two houses, mere brown blocks, but shimmering pastel snow.
By the 1890s, Monet was both artistically and financially successful and had purchased a farm at Giverny, about 47 miles east of Paris. (It was a haystack outside the farm that became the subject for the famous series.)
In his later years, Monet increasingly focused on painting the water lily pond at the farm. While that may sound tame, it was not. There are some 250 water lily paintings from small works to huge panels and the last room in the exhibition is devoted to some of them.
As he pursued this exercise, the images became more and more abstract. In 1899, Monet painted a Japanese footbridge over the water lily pond and the bridge is there for all to see hanging in DAM. Between 1918 and 1924 he painted two more pictures of the bridge, but now it had seemingly been absorbed by the surroundings and was invisible.
The elderly Monet had failing eyesight, cataracts, and some have attributed the increasingly wild lilies to that disease, but Daneo does not think so. “Maybe it played a small role, but Monet always had a very clear idea in his mind of what he wanted to paint.”
On Dec. 5, 1926, Monet died from lung cancer. “Even till the end he was pushing,” Daneo said. “He was talking about building a new studio.”
Perhaps Monet offered his own best epitaph and also good counsel for going to see his pictures at DAM: “People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.”
Updated on Oct. 21, 2019, at 12:45 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the date Claude Monet died. He died on On Dec. 5, 1926.