Paul Cézanne paid Claude Monet one of the most famous backhanded compliments in the history of art when he wrote: “Monet is just an eye, but good God, what an eye!” (“Monet n’est qu’un oeil, mais bon Dieu, quel oeil!”)
In his later years that eye failed the great Impressionist at a time when he should have been able to enjoy the success denied him for so much of his career. In 1908, at the age of 68, Monet’s sight began to deteriorate due to double cataracts. With the death of his second wife, Alice, in 1911, his condition seemed to worsen. As his vision became increasingly clouded he sat in his garden painting waterlillies, day after day.
By 1917 Monet was wearing glasses with thick lenses, trying to combat the inexorable descent into blindness. It was not until February 1923 that he underwent a cataract operation on one eye that partially restored his sight. It was a revelation for him to see his own work. Looking at the world through clouded eyes he had painted the garden and its waterlily ponds with an extraordinary freedom and vigour. He liked what he saw, and pitched back into his project with a new spirit. He would continue to paint the waterlilies until his death from lung cancer in December 1926, finding inexhaustible depths in this motif.
In May 1927 Monet’s large canvases were installed in the oval rooms of the Orangerie in Paris, where they may be seen today in freshly renovated spaces. They astonished audiences at the time, and continue to do so, standing as one of the most remarkable examples of a master painter’s last outpourings.
Those works that remained with the family passed into the hands of Michel Monet, who died in a car accident in 1966, leaving a bequest of more than 130 paintings, watercolours, pastels and drawings to the Musée Marmottan, a converted mansion on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. The building and its art collection had been bequeathed to the Académie des Beaux-Arts by the wealthy Marmottan family, and had opened as a museum in 1934.
Bolstered by other important bequests the museum now houses the world’s largest collection of paintings by Monet, and is known as the Musée Marmottan Monet. More than fifty works from this collection will be featured in Monet’s Garden, the latest installment in the National Gallery of Victoria’s successful series of ‘Melbourne Winter Masterpieces’.
The exhibition begins with a brief introduction to the artist and his works, but focuses on the years spent in Giverny, a small town some 80 kilometres north-west of Paris, situated at the point where the River Epte meets the Seine. Monet and his family moved there in 1883, after he had spied the house from the window of a train.
His family arrangements at the time were complicated. Monet had lost his wife, Camille, to tuberculosis in 1879, and was left to bring up two sons, Jean and Michel. He had also taken on the care of Alice Hoschedé and her six children, after her husband, Ernest, had been declared bankrupt and fled the country. Hoschedé, who owned a department store, had been among the artist’s most dedicated collectors and closest friends. Yet even after he returned to France, Alice and the children would remain with Monet. Following Ernest’s death in 1892 the couple married.
From the first years in Giverny, Monet kept a garden, planting flowers in no particular order so he could enjoy the combinations of colours. He sought out rare species and swapped with friends, taking a big step forward in 1893 when he bought a piece of land adjoining his property and set about transforming it into a garden with an extensive pond, fed by the Epte. To get to this garden in Monet’s time one had to cross the railway tracks and a road, but today it is reached by an underground passage.
After Monet’s death the garden fell into disrepair. It was completely restored between 1976-1980, under the direction of Gerald Van der Kemp, known for his work on Versailles. Van der Kemp was an assiduous fund-raiser who arranged for 95 percent of the costs of restoration to be met by private donors, mainly American and Japanese. Nowadays, the garden receives more than 500,000 visitors every year during the seven months it is open to the public.
The first section of the NGV exhibition deals with the period in which the garden was being laid out, when the artist would still travel in search of subjects for his paintings. It includes pictures made in Normandy, but also in London and Norway.
The second section is completely devoted to works produced in the garden between 1897 and 1926. As his eyesight dimmed, Monet felt less inclined to leave Giverny, viewing his garden as an earthly paradise of his own construction in which he could design a certain feature and then paint it.
He had begun in front of the house, with a Clos Normand – an orchard and extensive flower-bed enclosed by a high stone wall. The garden is divided by a grande allée, enclosed by thin iron arches covered in climbing roses.
The water garden was a more ambitious proposition, drawing inspiration from the Japanese gardens that Monet knew from his extensive collection of Ukiyo-e prints. Accordingly, the layout is asymmetrical – the complete antithesis of the orderly, regimented style of French garden one finds in places such as the Tuileries or Versailles.
Monet installed a Japanese bridge, covered with wisteria, and several smaller bridges. He planted weeping willows, a bamboo grove, and other plants that would create harmonies and contrasts of colour and form. His major innovation was the pond, in which clusters of lilies with their large pink flowers would mingle with an ever-shifting play of reflections on the water.
Monet delighted in painting the lily pond in different conditions, at different times of day. When mist lingered over its surface, it was not the same pond as seen in bright sunlight. When his eyes grew weaker he would envisage the pond in his mind’s eye, sacrificing detail for broad sweeps of colour.
Although it would be inaccurate to see these paintings as abstractions, they have been celebrated as important precursors of the works of American Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Even today the rawness of some of these late canvases is startling.
The crucial act of international recognition came in 1960, when William Seitz organised an exhibition called Claude Monet: Seasons and Moments for the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Not only did Seitz publish the first major scholarly monograph on the artist, he explored Monet’s influence on the abstract painters who were the avant-garde of their day.
The emphasis on the late waterlily paintings created in the garden at Giverny has given Monet a special status among the artists of his generation. His fellow Impressionists such as Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley are known as painters of French life and landscape, but Monet’s work forms a unique bridge between the art of the 19th century and the last years of the Modernist adventure. From his private world in the French countryside he projected a vision that transcended the boundaries of time and place.
Monet’s Garden: The Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris
National Gallery of Victoria, May 10 – September 8, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 4, 2013