Thoroughly Modern Monet at Boston’s Fine Arts

The Washington Post, 25 Oct 1998, p. G05.

Sunday, Final Edition
“Thoroughly Modern Monet at Boston’s Fine Arts,” The Washington Post, October 25, 1998, P. G05.

By Jason Edward Kaufman

BOSTON “Monet in the ’90s: The Series Paintings” broke attendance records in 1990 at the Museum of Fine Arts here, drawing more than half a million visitors. Now, with the inevitability of Hollywood, we get the sequel: “Monet in the 20th Century” — organized by the same Monet scholar, but focusing on the next, and final, phase of the artist’s life.

With the spate of Monet shows across the country in recent years, a critic is sorely tempted to substitute a “y” for the “t” in the artist’s name and accuse museums of booking the equivalent of the latest Bruce Willis movie. The visual experience of this show, however, proves we still have something to learn about Monet. For although the exhibition is filled with familiar artworks — how could they be otherwise amid this Monet mania? — their aesthetic quality continues to reward our contemplation.

What is it about Monet that packs in the crowds? Once vaunted as a daring innovator, Monet today appeals less to our fascination with rebels than to more conservative instincts. We sense from his work an existence centered on family and garden, a milieu exemplary of domestic bourgeois values. Indeed, Monet was an artistic suburbanite par excellence, the creator of eminently accessible paintings of an ideal back yard. His greatness lies in having made those pictures gateways to transcendence.

From the time he turned 60 in 1900 until his death in 1926, Monet produced about 450 variations on a few hackneyed motifs — his gardens and lily pond at Giverny, the Houses of Parliament in London, the canals and palaces of Venice. Boston gathers 80 of these canvases and clusters them by subject in recognition of the artist’s own choice to show his work in series. “The desired effect can only be produced by displaying them all together,” he told his dealer.

The exhibition’s centerpiece — which alone would justify a visit to the show — is a spectacular skylit room containing no fewer than 24 easel-size waterlily paintings installed with breathtaking elegance by curator George Shackelford. Like so many windows opening onto the reflective surface of the flowery pond, these delicate evocations surround the viewer with a tranquil panorama that anticipates the continuous wrap-around environment Monet would later execute for l’Orangerie in Paris, a government commission arranged by a friend, the statesman Georges Clemenceau.

Subsequent rooms present larger-scale versions of the waterlilies. But in terms of palette and degree of finish these works are disparate, and their melange does little to capture the artist’s decorative ideas.

More successful are the dozen turn-of-the-century winter views of the Thames in which bridges and the Neo-Gothic Parliament dissolve in the hazy, smoke-infused English atmosphere. As in the waterlily gallery, juxtaposed treatments underscore Monet’s ability to capture a variety of transient effects with a poetry that extended the achievements of J.M.W. Turner and J.A.M. Whistler.

By his 60th birthday, Monet was celebrated as the “crowning jewel” of French painting and enjoyed financial success commensurate with such accolades. He was able to expand his floral haven to the point that it required a full-time gardener and five assistants to maintain.

But despite material well-being, Monet’s later years were marked by tragedy. A flood destroyed much of his garden in 1910, and the following year his second wife of more than 30 years died. His eldest son suffered a stroke that would lead to his premature death, and Monet himself discovered he was losing his vision in both eyes. As if these personal traumas were not enough, in 1914 the nation plunged into a war that would bring armies within 40 miles of the artist’s retreat. Paintings of the period shudder with anxiety, such as the contorted portraits of a weeping willow, its trunk wounded with vertical slashes of pink and rose.

Overcoming depression and chronic pessimism concerning the value of his enterprise, even in his seventies and eighties Monet continued to work with uncanny passion and determination, constantly experimenting with new techniques and tackling projects that involved canvases the size of billboards.

As his scale grew, his brushwork loosened and his abstraction increased, a shift often assumed to have been caused by the cataracts that by 1921 had left him blind in his right eye and with 10 percent vision in his left. For years he resisted the necessary operation for fear that he might never recover his sight, declaring, “As long as my paint tubes and brushes are not mixed up . . . I will paint almost blind, as Beethoven composed completely deaf.”

Guest curator Paul Hayes Tucker of the University of Massachusetts maintains that deteriorating eyesight had nothing to do with the “blurri ness” of Monet’s painting at the time. It did, however, lead to chromatic distortions such as those in the astoundingly abstract views of the wisteria-covered Japanese footbridge painted around 1917-20, whose form is nearly consumed in expressionistic clouds of fiery color. Only after a successful series of operations in 1923 did Monet’s palette return to the normal spectrum.

In Tucker’s earlier exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts showcasing Monet’s series paintings of the 1890s, he proposed that the grain stacks, poplars and cathedrals were not random motifs, but idealistic symbols with nationalist resonance. The current exhibition makes no such claims for Monet’s late paintings, which primarily depict the artist’s own garden. (Tucker proposes that the liberal Monet turned away from immortalizing La France in the wake of the sordid Dreyfus affair, which saw the antisemitic French government wrongly convict a Jewish army officer for selling secrets to the Germans.) Instead, it casts the later works as both culminations of 19th-century romantic naturalism and manifestations of 20th-century modernist formalism.

By the 1950s, American art historians and painters were finding in Monet the seeds of abstract expressionism: his broad swaths of impastoed paint; his innovative cropping and borderless expanses of color; his reflective inversion of up and down and mingling of near and far; and his painting of landscape virtually to scale — imagining the canvas “not as a window but . . . almost as the surface of the pool itself,” as critic Andrew Forge has observed.

As a collateral exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts makes clear, the abstract character of Monet’s late work influenced a legion of his artistic descendants in America, from Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler to Sam Francis, Philip Guston and Joan Mitchell. But unlike these painters, even at his most radical, Monet the “abstract impressionist” never completely abandoned the recognizable world. His canvases invite us to see that world through his eyes, and it is that experience that makes the current exhibition such a pleasure.


“Monet in the 20th Century” will be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, until Dec. 27, and at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from Jan. 21 to April 18. Tickets range from $ 5 for children to $ 17.50 for adults on weekends. Various hotel packages are available. For information call 617-423-6000 or for automated service 617-542-4MFA. Visit the MFA online at

Jason Edward Kaufman (c)


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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