What is there left to say about Claude Monet, by me or anyone else? But for #2020, I might not have known. In this exhausting, inexhaustibly urgent moment, the Impressionist master feels more and more necessary, a refuge of languorous bliss — radiant color and resplendent nature, shimmering grainstacks and glowering winter skies, the fertile riot of summer gardens. Don’t think of it as guilty pleasure. Given what’s happened over the past many months, we’ve earned it.
Walking into the galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts’ freshly-opened “Monet and Boston: Lasting Impression,” the waves of relief washing over me took almost physical force. There he was, in remastered black-and-white film, wandering the lush gardens of his home in Giverny, swiping paint on a canvas that fluttered lightly in the breeze. Through a transparent scrim, the works beyond beckoned, strung along a timeline like gold coins through a forest. Here was beauty, and mastery, and passion, the unalloyed, simple joy of it, everywhere the eye could see.
The exhibition includes all 35 of the museum’s Monet paintings, an embarrassment of riches, plus a strategic handful of influences and loans. The show makes the point that the city embraced the artist early and in his lifetime: By the time of his death in 1926, 21 of the museum’s 35 paintings were already in the collection, largely by the good graces of local collectors. An 1892 show of 20 paintings at the St. Botolph Club could have easily been 40 just by skimming the parlors of local elite, observed one collector named Desmond Fitzgerald, “were the gallery large enough to show them to advantage.”
Well, this one is. “Monet and Boston” goes on for miles, designed to accommodate maximum social distancing. It’s not exactly the display the museum planned for this, its 150th birthday, but never mind that. One good thing the pandemic has given the MFA is justification to let loose its Monets in a decadent sprawl. With a health crisis raging, acres of beauty is good medicine, if not for the body then the soul, though the pandemic takes more than it gives. Tickets will be released month by month in strictly limited numbers, all but guaranteeing that supply falls far short of demand during the show’s 3½-month run.
Curator Katie Hanson makes an elegant choice; the exhibition is simple chronology, first to last, leaving the work to stand on its own ample merits. The display is thorough and instructive, tracking the evolution of an intuitive genius, step by step. Lighting, ultimately, is the exhibition’s masterstroke, either isolating great works in pools of warm glow or emulating the daylight in which Monet painted. (Another pandemic-necessitated feature: extended labels and audio are available on the MFA app, and at your leisure.)
Hanson’s guidance is subtle and helpful, largely yours to take or leave. Still, you’ll find some surprises — how about a caricature of a Parisian dandy, drawn when Monet was just 18, brand-new to the collection over these many pandemic months? — and many welcome nudges. One of the first paintings you see is Monet’s “Woodgatherers at the Edge of the Forest,” from 1863, hung beside pastoral works by Jean-François Millet and Théodore Rousseau, Monet’s immediate Barbizon school forebears. Made when he was just 23, the painting shows the young artist walking in line with tradition, adopting the restrained palette of his elders. (Academic French painting had a code of deferential self-declaration — not too much too fast.) But it takes no expert to see Monet straining at convention; drenched in buttery sunlight, those ochre leaves at the forest’s edge look ready to burst into flames.
It’s a subtle but important cue: Hanson wants you to know that Monet was a molotov cocktail of unrestrained, intuitive innovation, whose explosion of color and exuberant brushwork made a clean break with everything that came before. Most of the show has that crackle, of Monet’s hunger to capture both immediacy and mundanity, to find fascination and beauty in the most quotidian of things. He had every ability to be a letter-perfect academic painter within the tradition, a comfortably inauspicious fate at which the Barbizon comparison teases. It would have been so easy for Monet to have not been Monet — far easier, in fact, given the early resistance to his iconoclastic world view. (In the late 1860s, rejection of his work at the Paris Salon — too big, bright, boisterous, they said — prompted Monet to organize the first-ever Impressionist exhibition with co-conspirators like Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Berthe Morisot.)
But Monet was too insatiable, with an endless wonderment at the visual energy of things near and far, to fall so much in line. (“One is too much taken up,” he once said, “with what one sees and hears in Paris.”) The show devotes a small gallery space to the influence of Japonisme on his work, from his fascination with the delicate precision of 19th-century woodblock prints, to the wildness of “La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume),” from 1876 and an MFA collection crown jewel, that captures his wife twirling in a lavishly embroidered kimono.
Another gallery, focused on Monet’s time in Normandy, is testament to the northern light that so informed his work — the winnowy poplar trees throwing their long, spindly shadows, the thatches of field and flower cast in pale glow, the rugged coast, the cool and luminous sky. One painting, a rarely seen loan from a local collector, is a wonder of unapologetic abandon. “Sunset on the Sea, Pourville,” from 1882, is a seascape aflame with a glaring pink sunset, absent a horizon, the whole thing a quivering slate of quick swipes and daubs that feels like it was made in moments. It’s dazzling, unrestrained, and breathless with the pure pleasure of seeing; it feels unfinished and alive, like the world itself.
Pick yourself up from that, if you can, because you’ve barely begun. Shimmering in low light just beyond is the biggest of the galleries, which Hanson simply calls “Monet’s Magic.” Well, of course. It’s a showcase of the artist’s endlessly furtive curiosity. He would paint the same scene over and over, his subject less a place than time, light, and the mutability of seeing itself (you’ll see two works of the Creuse Valley from 1889 side by side, where the composition is eerily identical but the paintings radically different). Monet’s hunger was constant, and he vexed himself as nourishment; a small group of works from the Cote d’Azur, where the light was strange and the terrain unfamiliar, feel oddly restrained and unsure despite the artist’s powers having been in full bloom. This only heightens the thrill of watching him find his feet on new ground: “Cap Martin, Near Menton,” from 1884, teems with confidence in a loose rush of color, the mountains shrouded in a gauzy blush of cloud, the ground a fiery orange.
You’ll be struck, because you can’t not be, by “The Water Lily Pond,” an everything-at-once kind of painting set up like a beacon at the gallery’s heart, all on its own. Made in 1900, it’s the artist unchained, a plunge into a swampy underworld of meaty reds and muddy browns, of acid green yellow and deep, shadowy plum. It’s as visceral a work as you’ll find here, and it sticks out because of it. (It’s a picture, very loosely, of the bridge over the pond at home in Giverny, a scene he painted a dozen times over, all of them as different as night to day.) And though there are later works in the show — including a pair of “Water Lilies” from 1905 and 1907, part of his famous series of 200-plus paintings of the flowers afloat from every angle and play of light — it’s this tantalizing moment that leaves you knowing the last chapter isn’t here to be read.
The MFA doesn’t have a late work from 1909 onward, when the artist’s brush strokes grew into sweeping gesture and his lilies from delicate to eruptive. Impressionism, a genteel contribution to the Modernist revolution, seemed by then quaint, as rougher agents like the Fauves, Surrealists, and Cubists took hold.
Wealthy, acclaimed, and with nothing left to prove, Monet was nonetheless spurred into a robust final act. It culminated in that epic sprawl of lilies that everyone knows — disheveled, discordant, glorious — across 40-some feet of canvas, made as his sight dwindled over the final dozen years of his life. You’ll find those in New York and Paris, though dozens of smaller warm-up versions can be found in museums and private collections all over. Those late works affirm a life’s pursuit: There was never an ounce of nostalgia in Monet. He looked relentlessly forward, never back — a fact never more clear than in his final act. Was it the artist’s late, rough turn that caused Boston collectors to look away, enamored only of the pretty things? That I don’t know. What I do know is this: “Monet and Boston” is a tremendous tale, nearly complete, and deserving of its epilogue.
MONET AND BOSTON: LASTING IMPRESSION
Nov. 15-Feb. 28. At the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. Timed tickets must be purchased in advance via mfa.org/visit.