Monet-The Late Years at the De Young

Originally published in the Marina Times San Francisco in February 2019

During the years 1913 until his death in 1926, Claude Monet explored an increasingly vibrant abstract painting style originating from the gardens he cultivated around his home in Giverny. Known as the greatest landscape painter of the Impressionist group, this will be the first exhibition in more than 20 years to focus on the final phase of Monet’s career. 60 paintings, including more than 20 examples of Monet’s water lily paintings along with some less familiar rarely seen works, tell the story of Monet’s later years. Several paintings will be seen for the first time in the United States.

Broader applications of paint and the resulting increased abstraction of his canvases were in some ways a circumstance of Monet’s deteriorating eyesight. Ensconced in his gardens in Giverny, personal loss and the threat of surrounding war lead to this reinvention and a trend toward more introspective imagery. Limitations create alternate possibilities, and the adversity of Monet’s cataracts created a new way of seeing in works like Path under the Rose Arches. In this painting, the canvas explodes in swirling pigment as dappled light penetrates the arch of blossoms overhead. These paintings seem to be ancestors to modern abstract paintings reminiscent of early Jackson Pollock. This approach continues in Wisteria and The Artist’s House Seen from the Rose Garden, in which the subject matter dissolved into heavy, wide, brightly-colored brushstrokes.

The exhibit is arranged thematically, opening with paintings form the late 1890’s and early 1900’s including paintings of the Japanese footbridge installed over Monet’s newly-created lily pond and house, the future sources of his inspiration. The next period, between 1914 and 1919, takes the museumgoer to Monet’s return to painting after a hiatus following the death of his wife Alice and his son Jean. Water lily paintings from this period, juxtaposed with large-scale floral studies from the evolution of his garden illustrate his ongoing studies of the natural world. Works such as Day Lilies, Agapanthus, and Yellow Iris in addition to Water Lilies are among the 20 paintings on loan from the Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris.

Next, the exhibit explores Monet’s ambitions as a muralist. After 1916, the artist began to work in a vast studio building constructed to house his ambitious, large-scale work. Some of these canvases, measuring between 14 and 20 feet wide, formed a series of mural-style paintings now known as the Grandes Decorations. Paintings like Agapanthus, on loan from the St. Louis Art Museum, measures more than 6 x 14 feet in size – the expanse of which creates an immersive viewing experience.

The exhibit concludes with paintings from Monet’s late garden series, several on view in the United States for the first time. Here we find Monet returning to smaller panels on the scale of his famous series paintings from the 1890’s and early 1900’s. He returned to the familiar motifs on his property including the Japanese bridge and the rose-covered trellises. The most distinctive aspect of Monet-The Late Years is this showcasing of late period works in greater numbers than ever before attempted. These include seven studies of the Japanese bridge at Giverny, and six portrayals of a tree with a twisted trunk and gnarled branches. Also included is Weeping Willow, a painting from 1918-1919 that mournfully represents the fallen French soldiers of World War I.

After his death in December 1926, Claude Monet’s house and garden were eventually renovated and opened for tourists and remain a major international travel attraction in Giverny. The constraints of old age, sickness and grief can impose the sense that possibilities for personal achievement are narrowing. Monet’s late paintings exist as a kind of rebellion against personal challenges that could have easily turned into self-pity and resignation. Like Beethoven composing music after his hearing had failed, great artists help us understand that creativity transcends the limits of the human condition and proves that we are not defined by our circumstances.

Organized by George T.M. Shackelford, deputy Director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas, and installed in San Francisco by Melissa Buron, director of the art division at the Fine Arts Museums, Monet-The Late Years is on view at the de Young museum from February 16 through May 27, 2019 and then at the Kimbell Art Museum from June 16 through September 15, 2019.

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