A current exhibition charts the beginning of Claude Monet’s career.
In 1865, Oscar-Claude Monet was accepted into the Paris Salon on his first try. The painter, who was 24 at the time, showed two works. One of them was Pointe de la Hève at Low Tide (1865), a stormy coastal landscape depicting a beach near Le Havre, Monet’s hometown. The painting, which is nearly five feet wide, is based on a canvas half its size (now in the collection of The National Gallery, London). Painted the previous year, the initial work was created at the site of the scene. In the months leading up to the Salon of 1865, Monet painted the bigger work in his studio, largely duplicating the landscape, while changing the figures and adding an ominous sky. Monet found inspiration in Charles-François Daubigny’s submissions to the 1864 Salon, which like much of the Barbizon painter’s output since the 1840s, was painted outside in nature. Though Monet’s formal submission was created in the studio, painting en plein air, a hallmark of the group of painters that would become known as the Impressionists, was becoming an increasingly important part of the artist’s practice.
Pointe de la Hève at Low Tide, a jumping-off point of sorts for Monet’s career, was also the starting point for “Monet: The Early Years,” a current exhibition organized by the Kimbell Art Museum in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The painting, which was purchased by the Kimbell Art Foundation in 1968, five years before the Kimbell Art Museum opened in Fort Worth, Tex., in 2014 inspired the idea for an exhibition about the artist’s early career. The exhibition, which includes some 60 paintings, many of them loans from institutions such as the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., opens at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco on February 25, after having finished its run at the Kimbell. It will be on view through May 29.
The show defines Monet’s formative years as the period between 1858 and 1872. In 1858, the artist is 17. He paints View Near Rouelles (on loan from Marunuma Art Park, Saitama Prefecture, Asaka Kamiuchimagi, Japan) in response to a trip to Rouelles with Eugène Boudin, his mentor. Later that year, it is shown in an exhibition in Le Havre—his first piece on public view. In 1872, Monet, age 31, has just returned to France after a year in exile during the Franco-Prussian War. He settles in Argenteuil, a town near Paris, along the Seine. A suite of paintings in the exhibition, such as Argenteuil and The Port at Argenteuil (both 1872), which capture riverside views of Argenteuil at different times of day, forecasts the Monet that today’s viewers are most familiar with. Impression, Sunrise (1874, and thus outside the purview of the show), the most famous of the Argenteuil port paintings, would prompt the name of the Impressionist movement.
In the intervening years, Monet has a child and marries, faces rejection from the Salon, leaves his home country, and struggles with money. He also hones significant parts of his practice and paints quite a few good paintings. However, in the epic that is Impressionism, “Monet: The Early Years” is not part one, but the prequel. “Monet starts developing the style that will later give a name to the movement, but the I-word should not be used,” says Esther Bell, curator in charge of European paintings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and a curator of the show. “The show is not about Impressionism; it’s about a young struggling genius of an artist and how he finds his way.”
Despite his early success, Monet’s way, as it were, was spotted with professional struggle. However, the paintings that gave the artist difficulty are some of the most exciting in the exhibition. Following the critical acclaim of Pointe de la Hève at Low Tide in 1865, Monet set out to create a monumental painting for the 1866 Salon. Luncheon in the Grass, took its influence from Édouard Manet’s painting of the same name, which was presented at the Salon des Réfusés in 1863 to critical derision. Though Monet’s final iteration of Luncheon in the Grass did not include the shock value of the nudes in the Manet painting, the younger artist was attempting to capture a similar picture of modernity. The painting also found inspiration in the Rococo revival of the mid-19th century, and Monet looked to the work of Jean-Antoine Watteau and the 18th-century tradition of fêtes galantes to create an image of fashionable, sylvan leisure. He painted his subjects—including his wife Camille Doncieux, and artists Gustave Courbet and Frédéric Bazille—in the latest fashions, which were replete with Rococo details. In fact, while working on the painting, Monet even updated his subjects’ clothing as new trends came along. It was in 1863 that Monet visited the Fountainebleau forest, an important site for innovation in realist art and the site of the painting’s scene, for the first time as a professional painter. With all of these influences bubbling in his head, Monet began work on the painting in 1865: a vernal cool-kid picnic painted to mimic the effects of light en plein air. The ambitious piece was never finished. Monet hocked it to a landlord in place of rent, and when he bought it back the canvas was molded. The artist cut the painting into pieces, and the two that survive are on view in the exhibition.
In 1867, two paintings in a similar style were rejected by the Salon upon submission. The Magpie, a standout of “The Early Years” and a painting Bell refers to as “a tour de force,” was rejected by the Salon in 1869. However, this painting—a sparse yet rather large winter landscape depicting a single bird perched on a fence—is a stunning example of the artist finding his footing. Monet’s desire to capture nature and its various moods led him on daring excursions. During this period, Monet, clearly willing to suffer the cold to properly capture a scene, painted a suite of four winterscapes, all depicting the same stretch of road in Saint-Simeon.
The detail and contrast Monet could capture in snow are only trumped by his facility with reflecting bodies of water or light through trees. Museumgoers will delight in the lightly rippling water in La Grenouillère (1869) and the cloud patterns and shadows in The Bridge at Bougival (1870). And for those hungry for the rest of Monet’s story, “Monet: The Late Years” hits San Francisco in 2019.
By Sarah E. Fensom