Julia McLean tours a series of exhibitions in France in honour of the Impressionists. After Claude Monet and his contemporaries began painting, humans never saw their world quite the same again.
In the Spring of 2010, France decided to honour the Impressionists with a series of exhibitions which took place over the year till Spring 2011 so I spent a fruitful few months drinking in the beauty of the Impressionist paintings in all the exhibitions in Normandy and Paris. There were an impressive number of paintings which I had not come across before. My main criticism of these exhibitions is there wasn’t a really good comprehensive guide for each exhibition – no fold-out pamphlet with thumbnails of all the paintings and the comments from those huge display boards where they explain what is in each room. This meant I had to make copious notes and then had problems decrypting them!
Origins of Impressionism
The Impressionist habit of painting outdoors took root slowly because until the late 1800s the French Academy of Art ruled over painting like a Taliban taste police. They had rules for composition, subject and colour, mostly based on Greco-Roman subjects. Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Lunch on the Grass) caused a great scandal because the single female nude was surrounded by fully-dressed people participating in an alfresco luncheon. Had Manet simply painted a Greco-Roman nude with a classical subject, his painting would not have been rejected in 1863 at the yearly exhibition organised by the Academy. Artists were supposed to paint classical subjects indoors in their studios.
The magic of light was already being explored in another medium, photography, which was earning awards by 1851, and painting, according to the Academy, had to resemble as closely as possible a photograph, realistic and exact. However, the Impressionists, as they came to be called, were more interested in the aspect of photography which captures the fleeting moment and people’s working lives.
An exhibition of paintings, refused by the Academy, took place for the first time in the same year as Manet’s painting was refused. Gradually, the Salon des Refusés began to take place every few years and people began to appreciate landscapes, still life paintings, and even factory and dock scenes which had not been perceived as worthy subjects before.
By 1874 Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne and Degas plus Eugene Boudin, the Norman painter who had inspired Monet, had their first official exhibition. Critics were quite harsh, especially with Monet and Cézanne who seemed to be able to paint only “impressions” of things. The name “impression” taken from Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise) was used derogatively to describe this emerging group of painters.
The Eugene Boudin Museum – Honfleur
The Eugene Boudin Museum in Honfleur houses a permanent collection of the works of Boudin – one of the earliest influences on Monet and his friends. This year it was an excellent precursor to the major Monet exhibition in the Grand Palais in Paris. Several works by Corot, and JMW Turner’s 1832 Wanderings by the Seine and his Rouen Cathedral which were on show here, were inspirations for Jongkind, Pissarro and even Gauguin, whose Rue Jouvenet a Rouen and Verger sous l’Eglise de Bihoral came as a surprise to me. Artists like Lebourg, Delattre, Angrand and Frechon – lesser known luminaries — were also on display.
The 11 Monet Cathedrals, not on display here, obviously influenced Frechon whose L’Abbatiale de St Ouen – Fin de la Journee (Abbey Church of St Ouen – Evening) was distinctly Monet-esque. The artists exhibited here were very faithful to this locale and all stayed in the same hostelries and got to know each other very well over the passing years. Old streets in Honfleur were regularly painted by Boudin and Lemaitre as were views along the banks of the Seine by both Signac and Pissarro. This little museum, which has huge glass windows overlooking the Estuary of the Seine, is well worth a visit. As the French say, “Ca vaut le detour” (It’s worth the detour.).
The Marmottan – Paris
The signature painting of these exhibitions, Impression, Soleil Levant, was chosen by the Marmottan Museum in Paris to be used as its advertising poster. Although the Marmottan has a permanent exhibition of Monet’s work, it is not really suited to a major exhibition. It is, in fact, a Parisian palatial residence, and so is a suite of rooms. The ‘This Way’ signs were not very well displayed so we kept wandering off into other rooms. However, the fact that next to each picture was a photocopy Monet’s original sketches meant that one could immediately appreciate how quickly and cleverly he captured his impression of the subject and what an incredible amount of work went into the finished product. The crowning glory of the Marmottan exhibition is the series of Water Lily paintings arranged around the semi-circular basement room. Like the other exhibitions, the Marmottan had brought in a few paintings from other museums. Notably, there was a previously unseen Houses of Parliament from the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Germany and one of the series of Haystacks in the Snow was brought from the National Museum of Scotland.
Beaux Arts – Rouen
Two of the Impressionist exhibitions were outstanding in their display and the vast amount of paintings they had re-united from all over the world. In the Beaux Arts Museum in Rouen, the exhibition was very well organised, with pictures hung in large, light rooms. Monet’s dedication to capturing the effects of light was amply exhibited with 11 of his paintings on the famous façade of Rouen Cathedral.
Rouen was greatly valued by landscape artists in 19th century. It lies on the Seine between Paris and the coast. Richard Parkes Bonington was the first foreign painter whose modern atmospheric landscapes influenced the ideas of French artists of the time. Paul Huet, who travelled around with Bonington also produced “impressions” of Normandy. His Sunrise on a Frosty Morning is kept at Vire Museum. At the same time, Corot and JB Jongkind were working on the effects of light, but it was JMW Turner who, using Rouen as an inspiration in his many sketches and water colours, was to inspire Monet’s concentration on the play of light on Rouen Cathedral.
Monet, Pissarro and the early Impressionists were principally inspired by the situation of Rouen on the water, so there are innumerable paintings of the Seine throughout the seasons, walks along its banks and even, as industrialisation progressed, scenes along the waterfront of ships loading and discharging cargo. The gentle, green rolling country side, with its lush pastures, lumbering milk cows, bonny milk maids and sturdy peasants were all new subjects for the painters.
The series of Cathedrals by Monet are the high point of Impressionist art where the motif, the cathedral and its lace tracery of Gothic stonework, nearly disappears into the mists of morning or evening and the strong noonday sun almost melts its outlines. Pissarro, seeing these wonders, starts his own series of works mainly based on the Seine. The eight renditions of the Bridges over the Seine and another eight of the quays were on display in Honfleur.
Grand Palais — Paris
The Grand Palais exhibition was entirely dedicated to Monet. The pictures were arranged by subject which, in fact, was a lot less confusing than by date. This did allow you to compare the different renditions of certain subjects to which the artist returned frequently.
The first inspiration for Monet and his friends was the Forest of Fontainebleau where he painted several canvases with his friend Bazille. One of these paintings was brought from Copenhagen and one can already appreciate how delicately Monet treated the sun streaming through the foliage. The second section was dedicated to paintings of the coast. St Adresse Temps Gris has a magnificent turbulently clouded grey sky and the smaller painting, Entrance to the Port of Trouville (brought from Budapest), was a delicate peachy golden sunrise.
Some of the paintings of the beaches and promenades with their Hotel fronts in Trouville were crowded with figures (Camille Monet notably). His Grosse Mer Etretat (Rough Sea Etretat) with its wonderfully captured seascape and great white waves shows his mastery of the subject. His mastery of painting in white was also evident in various snowscapes, particularly The Magpie. Several beautifully executed paintings of the Port of Le Havre with sailing ships at the quayside and one of the port at night were also exhibited.
The next section also concentrated on his water paintings but along the river Seine. There were two lovely leafy paintings of bathers at La Grenouillere, a magic pink sky in La Seine at Bougival, and another incredibly beautiful one of the frozen Seine called Glacons sur la Seine.
Argenteuil just outside Paris was also a favourite subject of the artist. There were four paintings of walks along the river with wonderfully painted skies and trees. The well-known Les Coquelicots (Poppy Fields) was exhibited as well as two studies of the Bridge at Argenteuil under changing light. Several lovely paintings of regattas were also on display.
His paintings of Paris varied, from the banks of the Seine filled with bustling crowds to three of his series of the Gare St Lazare – all with fabulous steamy railway station backgrounds painted in 1877 (One was almost Van Gogh-like with larger brush strokes; the second was an industrial-looking very dark blue; and the third was a pink pastel sunrise with the steam of the train cutting across the sky.) through to paintings of the Tuileries Gardens with Notre Dame in the background.
Monet then went on to paint at least 10 different renditions of Vetheuil and Lavacourt (towns along the Seine). There are bright cold winter scenes with ice floes along the river, leaden skies, heavy clouds, winter sunsets, all evidencing the genius of Monet.
The next section of paintings was Monet’s Normandy coast series, painted around 1880. Mer Agitee (Heavy Seas at Etretat), Ombres sur la Mer (Shadows on the Water at Pourville) and Maree Basse (Low Tide at Pourville) show his complete mastery of painting tides. There are another seven paintings of Pourville, and one of the famous hole in the cliffs at Etretat plus the last painting of Norman coastal scenery was of little houses perched on the cliffs at Dieppe (Falaises a Dieppe).
The seventh grouping consisted of paintings of the Mediterranean series, which I had never seen before, and some of these are stunning. Antibes le Matin (Morning-Antibes) was exquisite. Monet was bowled over by the bright colours so different from the paler, greyer light of Normandy. “Il faudrait une palette de diamants et de pierrerie,” he said when he saw the Mediterranean coast (“One needs a palette of diamonds and precious stones”).
The rest of the exhibition was difficult to categorise and I think the Museum must have found it so too but this really only testifies to the enormous output of Monet, the variety of subjects and his particular determination to depict light correctly. There was a superbly savage sea in his Belle Ile sur Mer on the coast of Brittany and, of course, the famous Ladies in the Garden (Femmes au Jardin), his two versions of Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Lunch on the Grass), one of which was enormous and in two parts; and ‘Les Promeneurs (The Walkers). There were also a few interiors, very gloomy and dark in tone called Lunch, Dinner and After Dinner followed by a few still life works (hunting trophies and vases of flowers) and several paintings of Camille, Monet’s first wife, Camille in the Long Green Dress being one of the best known.
After he bought Giverny in Normandy in 1885-86, Monet painted even more countryside pictures. There were five paintings of poplar trees in various lights and wind conditions, five hayricks at different times of the day, three of the little bridge in the garden at Giverny, more studies of Varangeville , four more of Vétheuil and a lovely summery painting of three girls in a punt called La Norvegienne. It was in this part of the show that the museum decided to exhibit five of his Cathédrales de Rouen, not as impressive as when I saw 11 of them together in the Rouen Museum but a welcome sight anyway!
Monet’s four Houses of Parliament – London plus three tremendous foggy London sunsets (painted between 1889 and 1901) were exhibited together with five paintings of Venice executed in wonderful hazy pastel colours. They alone were worth going to see.
The last section was called La Grande Decouverte – the Great Discovery, and consisted of the best known Monets: three Femmes a l’Ombrelle (Ladies with Sunshade) painted between 1875 and 1886; a well-known Lunch in the Garden at Giverny, two pale lemon Water Lily paintings, others where red was the major colour, and some beautiful lilies and irises rather like Van Gogh with a lighter touch.
I gave Givernya miss this year because I could see that most paintings were on tour somewhere so I had probably seen the best of Monet and his Impressionist friends. It certainly felt like it!
Deauville Beach by Claude Monet
Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet
One of the Front of Rouen Cathedral by Claude Monet
The Water Lilies by Claude Monet
From the Haystacks series by Claude Monet
Claude Monet, photo by Nadar, 1899.
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