PARIS (AP) – Beloved by Americans, Impressionist master Claude Monet has long been a victim of a sort of Gallic snobbishness in his native France.
A new exhibition at Paris’ Galleries Nationales attempts to right this historic wrong by bringing together nearly 200 pieces by the painter – from blockbuster chefs d’oeuvre reproduced in books, magazines and postcards worldwide to little-known, privately held pieces you’d never guess were Monets.
Curator Guy Cogeval said “Claude Monet (1840-1926)” – the most complete Monet exhibit in France since 1980, with paintings on loan from dozens of museums and collections from Cleveland, Ohio, to Canberra, Australia – is a bid to “repatriate one of the great geniuses of French art.”
“We (the French) have always said, ‘Monet’s for an exhibit in Japan, an exhibit in the United States, but not for one in France.’ But why? He’s one of our greatest painters,” Cogeval told The Associated Press.
He chalked this reticence up to “snobbishness,” saying the French largely dismissed Impressionism as “something for tourists” and preferred other 19th century movements like Realism or Symbolism.
This Gallic apathy “has had disastrous consequences” on the French public’s appreciation of Monet, Cogeval said, adding that the lion’s share of recent scholarship on the painter was done by academics in the U.S. and Britain.
“I think the French public will be very surprised” by the show, said Cogeval – who also heads Paris’ Musee d’Orsay, a museum dedicated largely to the Impressionists.
Organized thematically, the exhibition – which opens Wednesday and runs through Jan. 24 – showcases the subjects that obsessed Monet throughout his long life, from the rocky coastline of Normandy to the haystacks and poplars he revisited under every conceivable meteorological condition, to the Japanese bridge and water lily-filled pond at his home in Giverny.
It highlights his evolution from a gifted but slightly conventional landscape painter – churning out in the mid-1860s seascapes so realistic they could almost be mistaken for photographs – to a painter whose feathery brushstrokes that captured shifting light, atmosphere and movement helped launch the Impressionist movement.
Grays, slate blues and forest greens dominate the early work, but Monet’s palette slowly broadens out, first to include pastels like buttery yellows and salmon pinks and then to the bold mauves, teals and crimsons of his final years, when his eyesight was clouded by cataracts.
Point de la Heve at Low Tide, an 1865 depiction of a foreboding, rocky beach in the northwestern Normandy region where he grew up – one of Monet’s early critical successes – shows his lifelong preoccupation with weather and atmosphere: The skies churn with foreboding black clouds and the whitecap-dotted sea roils.
Even as a young man of 25, Monet had already begun his lifelong pattern of returning over and over to the same subjects. The first paintings in the show, both from 1865, are two different takes on the same subject, a clearing in the forest of Fontainebleau, outside of Paris.
That kind repetition runs through the show, as its five curators scoured private museums and collections in at least 14 countries to procure multiple reinterpretations of the same scenes.
A series of five paintings from 1890-91 looks at the same mammoth haystacks at different times of day and throughout the year, capturing the mushroom-shaped objects under the golden sun of a sweltering midsummer’s day or shrouded beneath a glinting covering of frost or snow.
The facade of the cathedral of Rouen appears as many times in the exhibit, its Gothic facade tinged canary yellow, mauve, apricot or dusty gray, depending on the changing light.
Still, the show manages a fine balance between such Monet hallmarks as the haystacks and the cathedral and little-known pieces painted in styles one wouldn’t normally associate with the Impressionist master.
“Hunting trophies,” a realistic 1862 still life of dead fowl, looks like it was left over from some completely unrelated exhibition.
And at first glance, Luncheon on the Grass – a monumental 1865 work – appears surely to have been painted by Edouard Manet, whose 1863 canvas of the same name was a critical hit at the time and has blossomed into an enduring masterpiece.
But it’s definitely a Monet: Determined to surpass Manet, the fiercely competitive Monet tried his hand at an even larger, more complicated composition of the same genre. But the project proved too ambitious for the young painter, who abandoned it and stashed it away for decades before eventually gifting it to the French government, curators said.
A 1866 portrait of his first wife, Camille, wearing what curators said was likely a rented dress of sumptuous green silk, conjures up the stately portraits of American painter John Singer Sargent.
Of course no Monet retrospective would be complete without his iconic Water Lilies, which have launched a thousand Impressionist calendars the world over. The monumental series of murals couldn’t be moved from the Orangerie Museum across town, but curators culled more than a dozen paintings of the aquatic plants – which Monet himself had planted in a specially dug pond in his garden in Giverny.
From the beginning of his career through the end of his life and beyond, Monet’s admirers in the U.S. were largely behind his enduring success, the curators said.
“Americans were really the people who got Monet’s career moving,” said Richard Thomson, another of the show’s curators. “By the 1880s, Monet’s paintings were selling extremely well in America … perhaps because the American taste was less rigid than in France.”
Cogeval said he expects the exhibition will attract some 700,000 visitors – many of them French people, but also many of Monet’s enduring American fans.
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