Saturday, January 06, 2007

Monet in Raleigh

Wednesday I went with 12 colleagues to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh to see the "Monet in Normandy" exhibit--70 or so paintings showing the artist's development from the 1860's, when he was in his twenties, to his final work among his water lilies at Giverny. It's always fascinating to see a chronological record of a master's work, albeit a selective one. The earliest pre-Impressionist work, as colorful as it often is, seems drab and static in comparison to his mid-career and later work, in which waves, trees, grain stacks, cathedrals, or seascapes are often stripped to their abstract essentials but come to life in a stunning scattering of light and brush stroke.

Garden at Sainte-Adresse, 1867

As remarkable as the evolution in his appreciation of and skill in evoking light was Monet's persistence in capturing just the effects he wanted. He would sometimes keep 14 or more paintings of one scene going, shifting his attention from one to the other as the light changed during the day. Thus, he produced multiple renderings of a few scenes that drew his attention: the cathedral at Rouen, the dramatic seaside rock formations at Etretat, or, most famously, his beloved water lilies in his Giverny garden. Perhaps success for an artist (as for an inventor such as Marconi) requires an obsession with the work.

The Needle Rock and the Port d'Aval, Etretat, 1885
I like best his paintings of the middle period, from 1880-1895, but I'm also fond of the somewhat later Houses of Parliament series. One of those I saw in 1965 at Grace Underwood Barton's mansion in Brooklyn Heights. It was Houses of Parliament, Effect of Sunlight (1903). I was visiting along with a group working at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, where we were working for the summer. Barton was an aging member of the church and invited us over. I didn't know much about Monet, but I knew to be impressed when I saw the painting hanging above the mantel. She bequeathed it to the Brooklyn Museum.

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