Claude Monet, a giant of Impressionism, seems ubiquitous. If we haven’t seen his very recognizable art hanging in museums, we’ve probably seen posters or magnets with reproductions of his water lilies, his landscapes, and his gardens at Giverny. We may think we can’t be surprised when it comes to Monet’s work, but an exhibit at the Legion of Honor, Monet: The Early Years, the first one in the U.S. to focus on the artist’s formative years, shows us how we can. With more than 50 paintings from the 1850s to the late 1870s, we see Monet developing his visual language, technique, and style on the way to becoming the artist we know.
Along with showing us the early work of an important artist, the exhibit helps us understand the complex, turbulent times Monet lived in, says Max Hollein, director the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums. With all the building going on in Paris when Monet lived there, it was basically one big construction site, Hollein says. Later, the artist had to flee, because of the Franco-Prussian War, going to London and Holland before finally coming back to France.
The curator of European paintings for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Ester Bell, particularly loves a quote by Monet’s friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir that she believes shows the hold the artist had on people: “Monet amazed everyone, not only with his virtuosity, but also with his ways.”
Wearing a large, green “Show me the Monet” pin as she led a tour of the exhibit, Bell emphasized the daring and confidence shown in his early paintings. She called the show a story of failure ending in triumph, with Monet often struggling financially. Bell thinks that’s exemplified by the first huge painting you see in two panels at the entrance to the exhibition, Luncheon on the Grass, with people — Monet’s friends and his future wife, Camille Doncieux — dressed up having a picnic in the forest, inspired by his friend Eduard Manet’s painting of the same name.
Monet meant it for entry into the Salon of 1866, but he didn’t finish it in time, which meant a huge waste of resources, time and materials, Bell says. So he rolled it up and traded it to his landlord for the rent. When it came back, it had mildewed in parts due to improper storage. Monet cut out the damaged parts and kept the painting, which Bell calls a failed experiment that became a memory of daring and youth.
Monet’s earliest painting, View near Rouelles, completed in 1858 when he was only 17, also hangs in the first room of the exhibition. The tightly controlled landscape looks like the work of his mentor, Eugene Boudin, Bell says. Years later, Monet told people Boudin was the one who made him realize he could be a painter.
The exhibition goes on with paintings of Doncieux and of their baby Jean Monet, such as The Cradle and Jean Monet Sleeping. His relationship with his father and aunt who raised him after his mother died were strained — and they no longer supported him financially. Bell said Monet wrote letters before his son’s birth about his money worries; after Jean Monet was born, he wrote about being overwhelmed with love for his baby.
Almost an entire room of the exhibition is devoted to Monet’s pictures of the sea. He grew up in Le Havre, a port city, and was always interested in painting the changing surface of the water, Bell said.
The exhibition also has numerous paintings he did at the banks of the Seine. George Shackelford, Deputy Director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the organizer curator of the exhibition pointed out several of a swimming venue, La Grenouillère, where Monet was trying out ways of depicting reflected light. This was radical at the time, Shackelford says, and the paintings couldn’t really have sold when they were done, in 1869. In contrast, Flowers and Fruit, a still life he painted that year alongside his friend Renoir with ridiculously sumptuous flowers, seems to have been made expressly to sell, according to Shackelford, who said money was so scarce the Monets were living on bread and wine — and sometimes not even able to afford that.
Even with no money, even in exile, Monet continued to paint. The show takes us through his time in England, where his paintings include one of Hyde Park and one of his wife on an extremely English looking sofa, and in Zaartan, outside of Amsterdam, where he painted windmills, the port, and the sherbet-colored houses.
The show ends with paintings he did when he was 31 and living in Argenteuil, a town outside of Paris, along the Seine. This is a perfect place to leave him, Bell says. At this point, Monet had acquired a little bit of financial stability, with a house, and some fame amid artists, collectors, and critics. His palette had grown lighter. In Argenteuil, his mature style began to emerge with beautiful views of sky and water, and paintings of a towpath along the river at different times of day – something he did decades later, painting the same subject in different conditions.
Shackelford agrees that here we see him becoming the artist we know, one of the leaders of a movement. “Look at those fluffy clouds,” Shackelford says, pointing to The Port at Argenteuil. “That’s almost quintessential Impressionism.”
Monet: The Early Years, Feb. 25 – May 29, at the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue, 415-750-3600, legionofhonor.famsf.org/