Most museum exhibitions proceed like a piece of music steadily rising to a crescendo. Viewers trace the growth of an artist’s talent from humble beginnings to eventual triumph. Art movements begin with groups of poor but talented Bohemians scheming in cafés, and end by dominating the museums of the world. That’s pretty much the story of Claude Monet, and the story of Impressionism – without doubt the world’s favourite art movement.
Monet: Impression Sunrise at the National Gallery of Australia appears to follow that wellworn pattern, but by the last room of this exhibition, a different story has emerged. The large water lillies Monet painted at the end of his life in his garden at Giverny do not feel like the culmination of a career but a kind of added bonus. It’s an aside to viewers: “Of course you know how the story ends, but here are a few examples just for the sake of completeness.”
This show is front-loaded. It is essentially a meditation on Monet’s Impression Sunrise (1872), the painting that inadvertently gave a name to the Impressionist movement following a satirical review of the group’s first exhibition in April, 1874 by the critic, Louis Leroy. That work appears about one third of the way into the NGA exhibition, isolated on a wall as if were the Mona Lisa or some holy relic, but it’s a much lesser painting. Among Monet’s own works there are many pictures one would rank more highly, including some in this show.
Looked at objectively Impression Sunrise is hardly a masterpiece, but it is absolutely seminal to the story of Impressionism. It is an iconic painting that has grown more important over time as our love affair with Impressionist painting keeps escalating – a love reflected in the massive attendances commanded by shows of work by Monet, Renoir, Degas and Manet; and by a besotted art market, which has just seen a new record price of US$110.7 million set at Sotheby’s for a Monet landscape, Les Meules (1890).
The literal translation of les meules is “millstones”, and that’s appropriate because such inflated prices play havoc with an artist’s insurance valuations, making it much riskier for museums to lend works, and harder for international venues to afford the costs of a touring show.
Marianne Mathieu, of the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, which has the world’s biggest collection of paintings by the French master, views a US$110 million auction result as a millstone around every curator’s neck. If every work by Monet had a similar valuation the current show at the NGA would be an impossibility.
Mathieu is the curator of the exhibition, and has selected works that reveal how Monet became Monet: charting a pattern of influence that begins with older artists such as Eugène Boudin and Johan Barlthold Jongkind, who were early mentors in Le Havre. Upon moving to London to escape the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Monet would fall under the spell of J.M.W.Turner, and the city’s famous fog.
When he returned to France towards the end of 1871 Monet was 31 years old. His style of painting had become more free and bold, and his choice of subject matter more adventurous. His attainment of artistic maturity – or as he put it “the education of the eye” – had been due to many factors. Artists such as Boudin, Jongkind and Turner had been inspirational, but there were other influences in play as well, from Delacroix to Corot to Courbet. The show features work by each of these artists.
Art history has a tendency to carve a period into different ‘schools’, classifying Courbet as a Realist and Monet as an Impressionist, as if there were no connection between these two tendencies. In fact there was considerable overlap. One of the revolutionary tenets of Impressionism was the desire to abandon the classical fantasies favoured by the French Academy, and paint scenes of modern life. This was entirely in line with Courbet’s iconoclastic approach.
The two men were so well acquainted that Courbet was best man at Monet’s wedding to Camille Doncieux, in June 1870.
When Monet looked out of the window of his hotel in Le Havre on the grey, misty morning that has been immortalised in Impression Sunrise, he surveyed a scene that would never have appealed to him as a younger, more romantic artist. Instead of a sweeping view of the Normandy coastline he gazed at a working harbour, surrounded by the shadowy forms of sailing ships, cranes and tall chimneys. He saw the sun hanging in the sky like a bright orange ball, due to the smoke and mist in the atmosphere.
This was no ‘ideal’ landscape with a coulisse of trees, a placid pool of water, a shepherd and a ruined temple, it was a view of a world of industry and commerce. As opposed to the painstaking finish and love of detail that characterised academic painting, the work was brushed in quickly and energetically.
It’s hard for us to conceive how outlandish this seemed to a general public who had grown accustomed to the idea that a work of art had to be an improvement on reality, a window onto a classical past, the Bible, or the military glories of France. The Impressionists, like the Realists and Naturalists before them, felt that art should be part of the living world, not a matter for antiquarians.
Impression Sunrise became emblematic of this progressive attitude, growing in stature as the Impressionists became the most acclaimed movement of the modern era. In the infamous review that spawned the ‘Impressionist’ label, Louis Leroy called the painting a “catastrophe”, but the destruction it wrought would fall squarely on the Academy. Today we can recognise the picture as a time bomb that exploded the rigid conventions of French art, and ushered in a new way of seeing.
Monet: Impression Sunrise
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 7 June – 1 Sept. 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald & The Age, 7 June, 2019