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Claude Monet at Art Institute

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday October 14, 2020

 

In 1884, Claude Monet was painting along the Mediterranean shore, far from his home in the North, near LeHavre. So much of what he saw—the quality of the sunlight, the character of the vegetation, the changeability of the sky—was new to him, and so unlike what he was accustomed to. He described the challenges of this new visual world in his many letters to friends and family. He wrote that he was “appalled by the colors” he had to use, that the light was “simply terrifying.” Above: Bordighera, 1884

The result of a lifetime of obsession can be seen in an exhibition, Monet and Chicago, continuing live at the Art Institute of Chicago. The critic Adam Gopnik writes in the exhibition catalogue, “Monet…has turned out to be more pregnant with possiblity for future art than perhaps any other of the Impressionist generation. Monet’s influence is, indeed, in retrospect perhaps larger than any other painter of the last two centuries.” Through his unique way of seeing nature and the built environment, Monet not only upended the world of art, but he redefined what the rest of us see—and think we ought to see—when we look at the way light falls on what is before us. 

Monet was nothing if not a serial painter of subjects and themes. For example, he made numerous iterations of wheat stacks, waterlilies and the Rouen Cathedral to name a few. Additionally, he implored artists to “paint what you really see, not what you think you ought to see.” Monet was well aware of the difficult task he had set for himself, and was equally aware of his chances for failure. “To paint the sea really well,” he wrote in a letter to his wife Alice Hoschede, in 1886, “you need to look at it every hour of every day in the same place.” Above: Rocks at Port-Goulphar, Belle-Île, 1886

 

Monet often painted without a break for up to 14 hours a day and in all kinds of weather, no matter how extreme. He was defiant and persistent, lashing down his canvas, easel, and protective parasol against overpowering winds and rain or digging through snow, icicles in his beard, to get to the best location. He sought out dramatic views and perspectives, experimenting with unique and unconventional vantage points. For his Mornings on the Seine series, Monet created a system of slots on the deck of his boat and might paint for a total of seven minutes—“until the sunlight left a certain leaf on a certain branch of the tree”—before switching to the next canvas he had lined up. Above: Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare

 

For Stacks of Wheat, painted between late summer 1890 and February 1891, he would set up several easels at the same time and race back and forth between canvases, chasing the changing effects. While painting in London, he described “one marvel after another, each lasting less than five minutes,” and would work on 15 canvases at the same time, “going from one to the other and back again, and it was never quite right.” In his search for perfection, he would bring his canvases into the studio to further align the color harmonies. Above: Waterloo Bridge, Gray Weather, 1900

Although Monet never traveled to America, his work was shown in Chicago galleries and at the World’s Columbian Exhibitions of 1888, 1890 and 1893. In 1895 The Art Institute gave Monet his first solo museum show in the United States, “20 Works by Claude Monet.” The current exhibition, which presents 33 paintings and 18 drawings from the museum’s collection and another 30-plus borrowed from collectors in the Chicago, is in a way, a homecoming. 

Monet and Chicago continues at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 18, 2021. Info

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