February 16, 2019May 27, 2019

Monet: The Late Years

The exhibition features fifty paintings by Claude Monet dating mainly from 1913 to 1926, the final phase of his long career, including twenty works from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. During his late years, the well-traveled Monet stayed close to home, inspired by the variety of elements making up his own garden at Giverny, a village located some 45 miles northwest of Paris. With its evolving scenery of flower beds, footpaths, willows, wisteria, and nymphaea, the garden became a personal laboratory for the artist’s sustained study of natural phenomena. The exhibition focuses on the series that Monet invented, and just as important, reinvented, in this setting. It reconsiders the conventional notion that many of the late works painted on a large scale were preparatory for the Grand Decorations, rather than finished paintings in their own right. Boldly balancing representation and abstraction, Monet’s radical late works redefined the master of Impressionism as a forebear of modernism.

Image: Claude Monet, "Water Lilies" (detail), 1914–1917. Oil on canvas, 71 x 57 1/2 in. (180 x 146 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection, 1973.3

In Depth

Claude Monet, "The Japanese Footbridge," 1899. Oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in. (81.3 x 101.6 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Victoria Nebeker Coberly, in memory of her son John W. Mudd, and Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg. 1992.9.1. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Section 1: Prologue
The exhibition opens with paintings dating from the late 1890s and early 1900s that introduce Monet’s outdoor studio at Giverny, establishing the primary subjects that he would revisit during his late years. The Japanese footbridge, the newly created lily pond, and his house seen from the rose garden are among the motifs that he painted during a period of relatively high productivity, critical acclaim, and commercial success. Monet’s personal fortunes began to decline with the death of his second wife, Alice, in 1911, and the following year, with the diagnosis of cataracts in both eyes. These setbacks led to a hiatus from which he emerged in 1914 when, after a successful cataract treatment, he took up his brush with renewed enthusiasm.

Section 2: Large Water Lily Paintings
Monet’s lily pond was the most ambitious feature of his garden at Giverny. Created by diverting an arm of the Epte River in 1893, and expanded and refined during the early years of the new century, the pond offered an ever-changing reflective surface adorned with colorful varieties of aquatic flowers. Monet mounted an exhibition of his most recent series of water lily canvases—all easel paintings of conventional size—in the gallery of his Parisian dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, in 1909. After his self-imposed break from painting, Monet embarked on a new series of water lily paintings in 1914 that represented a bold departure, with their gestural brushwork and large two-meter format, three to four times the surface he had used before. At times he focused on elements that had been relegated to the fringes in previous works, creating fragmented views that can be spatially disorienting. On this same impressive scale, Monet also painted irises, daylilies, and agapanthus growing at the water’s edge.

Section 3: In the Garden
While devoting considerable energy to his extensive and varied water lily canvases and Grand Decorations, Monet also explored motifs around his garden that he treated with great vigor in several new series of easel paintings. This section is divided among groups of paintings representing the wisteria-covered Japanese bridge, weeping willow trees, the artist’s house seen from the rose garden, and the flowering trellises over a walking path. The order and dating of these paintings is complicated by Monet’s obsessive reworking of individual canvases over the course of days, months, and even years, adding fresh layers of brushstrokes to their already complex surfaces. Coinciding with his increasingly feverish brushwork, Monet’s conscious struggle against his deteriorating vision stimulated fundamental changes in the tonality and intensity of his palette during his last decade.

Section 4: Mural painting
The final section is devoted to the culmination of Monet’s ambitions as a muralist. With the completion of a vast studio building on his property in 1916, Monet was finally able to devote himself to the Grand Decorations project, a panoramic mural cycle installed in the Orangerie of the Tuileries Gardens after his death. The exhibition concludes with a group of large paintings of wisteria garlands related to an abandoned element of the preliminary decorative scheme. The centerpiece of the final gallery is a reconstruction of the Agapanthus triptych (ca. 1915–1926), a 42-foot-long mural originally intended for the Orangerie but dropped from the final selection. The triptych remained in Monet’s studio after his death and was later divided among the collections of the Cleveland Art Museum, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

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