“Monet: The Late Years,” an exquisite and enlightening exhibition, presents the evolution of the fabulous French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) from 1913 to his death. After a lapse in painting brought on by the deaths of his second wife and his eldest son, the 73-year old Monet rebounded and began to work again, reinventing his painting style, as though his tragedies were a call to action. This era is highlighted by the painter’s languid, large, mural-style water lily paintings and his exceptional abstract-like landscapes that were likely caused by the artist’s failing eyesight from cataracts. All the approximately 60 canvases in the show were completed at Monet’s studio and gardens at Giverny, his 5-acre home outside of Paris.
San Francisco’s de Young Museum in collaboration with the Kimball Art Museum, Ft. Worth, assembled a fabulous collection loaned by major public and private collections from Europe, the United States, and Asia, including 20 works from the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, as well as one painting by San Francisco Fine Arts Museums’ President, Dede Wilsey. Several of the works are being shown for the first time in the United States. “Monet: The Late Years” is the corollary to the 2017 show, “Monet: The Early Years,” presented by the Kimball Art Museum in collaboration with the de Young’s sister museum, the Legion of Honor.
“Monet: The Late Years” is arranged thematically as well as chronologically, with the first room containing a preview with canvases from the late 1890s and early 1900s of subjects the artist revisited in his late days, including representations of the Japanese footbridge, his newly created lily pond and the artist’s house as seen from the rose garden.
The exhibition then enters the period between 1914 and 1919, when Monet returned to work after the loss of his second wife, Alice, and his eldest son, Jean. The first paintings one sees in the second gallery are the energetic “Water Lilies” (1914–17). It’s a pleasure to see the sparkling water-lily canvases, which are contrasted with bold floral studies from the evolving scenery of the Giverny garden.
In 1916, Monet had a huge studio built on his property, so that he would be able to undertake significantly larger canvases than the easel-sized ones he had been using. He wanted these wide canvases to create an enveloping mood — what he called his Grandes Décorations. These panoramas, some between 14 and 20 feet wide, became much more desirable than his easel-sized canvases. In fact, after Monet’s death, some of his easel-sized paintings didn’t sell until the 1930s.
As one walks through the following galleries, one can see how Monet continued to re-interpret his favorite subjects as he aged and his eyesight failed. The galleries themselves are decorated in Monet-like colors, soft greens, and blues, as well as dark blue/black. The canvases are well separated so that each stands out, and the labels have large fonts (thank you!) that are easy to read.
During his final years, Monet revisited familiar themes on his property, and the exhibition displays seven studies of the Japanese bridge, and six studies of a tree with a twirling trunk. Among these is “Weeping Willow,” (1918–19), perhaps a somber response to his personal losses and the tragedy of the First World War. It is fascinating to compare all the renderings of the same subject and note the subtle differences in light and color.
Monet’s cataracts significantly affected his color perception near the end of his life, yet the artist produced his most audacious and abstract-like works at that time. It is difficult to know what colors Monet saw, yet the expressive style of these near-abstract paintings, in which almost all subject matter has been eliminated, is breathtaking.
This unique and beautiful exhibition of Monet’s late works is a feast for the eyes and adds significantly to the foundation of knowledge of this original and creative artist.
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2019 All Rights Reserved