Though his name has become synonymous with the 19th century’s canonical movement of Impressionism, and though his masterpieces hang proudly in the halls of the world’s finest museums, Claude Monet has long been—for me—a confounding artist.
He was one of the first whose work spoke to me, both superficially in its sheer beauty—his mastery of paint handling and impasto are irrefutable—but also viscerally, in the way his canvases could transport me to another place and time, so that I too could bear witness to the fleeting moment when the light fell just so on the Houses of Parliament.
And yet nowadays, I often find myself scarcely pausing before a Monet while spending hours enraptured by a nearby Manet; the two oft-confused contemporary rivals are usually hung in close proximity.
In my case, Monet was a victim of his own success. The proliferation of waterlilies, the Giverny footbridge, and the like on mugs, bags, and even umbrellas, robbed them of their initial power, and rendered the images…almost…hollow.
So when I found myself in Paris in mid-October, I was far more enthused to see the Basquiat retrospective at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris than the much-hyped Monet retrospective at the Grand Palais, billed as the first major Monet show in Paris in nearly half a century and the first-ever opportunity to see more than 150 masterpieces at once. “I know Monet,” I thought, “I’ve seen the masterpieces in museums throughout the world. What could I possibly gain from queuing for hours only to have to jockey for a viewing position amidst throngs of Monet fanatics?”
As the old proverb goes, curiosity killed the cat, and I found myself at the entrance to the exhibition one quiet afternoon. Thankfully the queue was minimal and before I could talk myself out of it, I was inside the Grand Palais.
My lack of enthusiasm was immediately upended. I hated to admit it—even to myself—but the works, individually and in mass, were absolutely beautiful. With each passing room (and there were many!), I lingered a little longer before each canvas, slowly rediscovering my youthful passion for Monet.
Then I found myself in front of the Rouen Cathedral series. I’d seen two or three before, but never an entire wall. And it was nothing short of magisterial. I marveled at his sophisticated palette with subtle gradations of color; the brilliant white highlights that fashioned form from the formless; shadows made not of traditional black or gray but of purple and blue; and, above all, his completely modern understanding of the uniqueness of context and the singularity of an individual experience, one that is inherently unrepeatable because the weather, light, and other conditions could never be replicated.
I thought of The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light (1894) in the Getty’s collection and how many times I’d walked briskly past, failing to give it the pause it so rightly deserved. I would make that mistake no longer.
Thankfully, that afternoon curiosity killed the cat, but more importantly—as the far less-quoted ending of the proverb goes—“satisfaction brought it back.”
Joyeux anniversaire, Monsier Monet!