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monet: the late years

3 november 2019

I'd seen "Monet: The Early Years" at Ft. Worth's Kimbell Art Museum awhile back, and I either missed "Monet: The Middle Years" or there weren't any. In 2019 "Monet: The Late Years" arrived, and this time I bought the catalog, even though I liked the exhibition quite a bit less than "Early Years." But the strangeness of Monet's last paintings was definitely worth learning more about.

There were a lot of water lilies on display in Ft. Worth this summer. Monet simply painted a heck of a lot of water lilies. Late in life, he became intent on providing the French nation with "great decorations" in the form of immense canvases of water lilies. Nobody seems to have asked the French nation if they wanted huge canvases of water lilies. But you know how it is with presents. The French nation were good sports about it, and installed the bulk of the water lilies in a spare orangerie in the Tuileries gardens. They look pretty good there, as it turned out.

As exhibition catalogs go, Monet: The Late Years leans toward scholarly documentation as opposed to theory-heavy interpretation or affective rapture. There's a lot of text here, even in the back of the book, where exhibition catalogs often feature just a series of plates. George Shackelford's book is a serious contribution to the basic facts of art history.

After an introduction by Shackelford, Claire M. Barry opens the volume with an essay on "materials and techniques" (27) used by Monet in his later years (1914-26). The painter worked on a massive scale, ordering huge canvases and using prodigious amounts of paint. But as his ambitions grew larger, his physical capacities deteriorated. Most troubling was Monet's sight. Not so much the acuity, I imagine: impressionism had always been something of a blur. But Monet worried about his color sense. He could not be sure, as he aged, that the colors he perceived were those his viewers would. The resulting canvases are certainly idiosyncratic in color, but then so were a lot of artists' in those years, artists whose visual powers were unimpaired. Monet's late paintings aren't deficient in color; they're simply unique.

Simon Kelly follows with a piece on Louis Bonnier, official architect of Paris, and his designs for a great panorama hall to house Monet's "decorations." As I noted, the Orangerie would eventually work out pretty well. But for a while, it was on the cards that the water lilies would inhabit a purpose-built museum. Bonnier's state-of-the-early-'20s-designs are a fascinating "what-if."

Emma Cauvin writes about the reception of Monet's water lilies. It was mixed, as contemporary reception of his work had been from the start. The impressionism of the early Monet had become a standard, and the later Monet radically departed from it; he took his lumps in the press. Marianne Mathieu adds a very interesting look at the provenance and in some cases the fate of the decorations during the mid-20th century. Some fell victim to war or fire, and some were badly stored and deteriorated. Others, planned as enormous wholes, got chopped up for the market, so that one great triptych (156-59) is now viewable only in pieces distributed among Cleveland, St. Louis, and Kansas City.

That sounds like a substantial book already, but Shackelford follows it with a chronology and then a meticulous description of each item in the Ft. Worth show, interspersing his prose among wonderful plates.

At the end of the day … I am not sure that these late Monets, even the greatest assemblages of the water lilies in Paris or New York, are quite to my own taste. They certainly had a crucial impact on Abstract Expressionism. Shackelford notes (186) the influence of Monet's swirly, nearly representation-free garden, tree, flower, and pond paintings from the 1920s on Americans from Clyfford Still to Joan Mitchell. But influence does not always equal greatness. I've mentioned being very moved by the last paintings of Alexei Jawlensky, who worked through impaired vision and near-paralysis of his hands. Jawlensky's final paintings are affecting because they are so small; he could not have undertaken anything like Monet's Great Decorations. But the very ambition of the water lilies seems to me at times to undermine their impact.

Though perhaps it's the circumstances under which one sees the water lilies. You never get a quiet moment alone with them. A similar great decoration, Mark Rothko's chapel in Houston, is often yours to experience all on your own for long stretches at a time. Monet's water lilies involve braving long lines and packed spaces – all the more so at smash-hit exhibitions like the Kimbell's Late Years. Maybe if there were somewhere you could go and book some alone time with some of these canvases, their appeal would really soak in.

Shackelford, George T.M. Monet: The Late Years. Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum / New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.