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Monet series displayed as intended at MFA



At the Museum of Fine Arts

Continues through April 29.


IN THE 1890'S, Claude Monet was at the height of popularity. His works at the time, presented more and more as ensembles or series, astonished and awed his critics. For nearly three decades, his paintings had been widely ridiculed, forcing him and his family to live in terrible poverty. In fact, it was his painting "Impression" which coined the then-derogatory term "Impressionist." By 1890, however, Monet was being revered as one of France's greatest national artists.

Monet, indeed, was far beyond his time. By the 1890s, after 40 years of Impressionism, people no longer considered Impressionism a "destructive force" in the field of art. Monet, with increasing financial stability, was now able to turn to motifs which interested him, and concentrate upon them. He experimented with depicting the effects of various atmospheric conditions, seasonal changes, and different times of day.

His first series, starting from 1889, were landscapes of the Creuse Valley in central France. The broad horizontal strokes and swirling dabs of color show less intent on detail, and the jagged cliff line is simplified, a stylistic technique also known to Renoir. The brilliancy and hues of color are apparent in "Valley of the Creuse (Sunlight Effect)," and is modified through each of the other canvasses, showing the variance of light and mood. The Creuse Valley paintings are considered Monet's first true series, having been conceived, executed, and exhibited solely as one ensemble.

After three months at the Creuse Valley, Monet returned to his home at Giverny, near Paris, to continue his work on his Grainstacks (not Haystacks) series, which later would become his first public success. He also painted a lesser-known series of Poppies, vibrant with their interplay of complementary colors, red and green. Poppy fields were also a favorite subject of Renoir, a close friend and former roommate of Monet.

The Grainstacks, with their extraordinary specificity, depict the transient effects of nature, from "Grainstack, Thaw, Sunset" to "Grainstack, Noon." Broad impasses of color -- hot yellow, muted lavender, pale blue -- line the background, while the grainstack takes all focus, sometimes even taking up half the canvas. In "Grainstack, Sunset," however, the prominent feature is not the grainstack itself, but the dense color situated around its top.

The Poplars, another successful series, contrast the Grainstacks in motif. Unlike the short, solid grainstacks, the slender poplars extend elegantly to the tops of the canvasses. A sweep of green color spirals delicately through some of them. This series shows more evidently Monet's "Abstract Impressionism," the precursor of "Abstract Expressionism" in the 20th Century.

By far the most famous series is Monet's 30 views of the Rouen Cathedral. Here, the collective impact of the ensemble is immense, and the greatness of the artist is truly known. Just looking at one particular view, one senses the passage of time within the painting, that elusive point when light seems to be just changing. The heavy impasto on the paintings is probably the result of constant reworking, or perhaps the conscious decision of the artist to suggest the mortar and stone texture of the Cathedral.

It must be noted that Monet was no mere landscape painter. He did not emulate the camera. He infused his work with his personality, moods, talents, and his particular sense of creative vision. The light and hues of these paintings stemmed from artistic vision; do not expect the Rouen Cathedral in reality to look as splendid as the Rouen Cathedral series.

Monet was obsessed with color and light, to the extent that when a dear friend lay dying, he could only marvel at the succession of colors passing her motionless temples. His eye surveyed the whole range of colors in light. Lights, in fact, became the focus of his painting and his primary subject. By 1890, Monet had stopped painting figures.

According to Paul H. Tucker, associate professor of art at the University of Massachusetts/Boston and guest curator of Monet in the 90's, Monet chose his subjects well. The Grainstacks were a symbol of stability, of rural traditions and values during a time of confusion and near anarchy. The Poplars, the Tree of Liberty during the French Revolution, and the Rouen Cathedral were tributes to France's national pride and her heralded past.

Among Monet's other famous series, Mornings on the Seine is the most temporal. One critic even joked that Monet had actually numbered them. In this series, Monet explores the confluence of mist, dawn, and water. As one moves from scene to scene, one can actually feel the mist departing from the Seine River.

Within this period, Monet also painted many other lesser known series -- Ice Floes, Spring Meadow, Mount Kolsaas, the Cliff Series, the London Series, and the Japanese Bridge. Nothing can quite match the ethereal beauty inherent in the Ice Floes nor the lush richness of the Japanese Bridge. These series paintings are equally astounding.

Monet in the 90's is a powerful experience. This marks the first time since the 1890s that Monet's paintings have ever been displayed as ensembles, as Monet intended them to be seen. Very few museums can claim to have more than two of one series, and it is indeed fortunate that the Museum of Fine Arts, through the generosity of Digital Equipment Corporation, can present this collection of over 90 paintings by the Impressionist master.