The Eyes Have It

Take time to stop and see the roses at Monet exhibit

It hasn't always been easy to pare Claude Monet's artistic achievements from his popularity. In the later half of his life (1840 to 1926), his paintings sold so well that the writer Emile Zola suggested that he might be unloading too many unfinished works that were barely dry.

More recently, the soaring market for Monets -- which can go for millions of dollars -- has encouraged skeptics among the young Turks of art to see him, erroneously, as a schmaltzy dabber, and his middle-class popularity as a sign of some fundamental artistic flaw.

But that hasn't kept him from becoming the brand name of French impressionism. Considered by many to be more soothing and colorful than Camille Pissarro or Alfred Sisley, and less rigorous than Paul Cézanne, he's one of the very few painters whose renown can reach the upper-deck and bleacher crowds at American stadiums.

Claude Monet painting a view of his gardens at Giverny.
courtesy of the Wildenstein Archives
Claude Monet painting a view of his gardens at Giverny.

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That partly explains the hubbub surrounding the Phoenix Art Museum's opening last month of "Monet at Giverny," an exhibition of 24 paintings borrowed from the Marmottan Museum in Paris.

Like last year's Egyptian blockbuster at PAM, which upped the museum's membership from about 5,500 to nearly 20,000 during its six-month run, Monet is here to draw crowds that rarely come to art. Museum officials expect about 150,000 to view the show before it ends in early January. In the past few months, the museum's special offers of free tickets with new memberships have brought in 2,000 more members. (PAM's Norman Rockwell exhibition "Pictures for the American People," in February 2001, will undoubtedly add to those numbers.)

This show doesn't contain the early urban views of train stations and Paris streets, or the later soft-focus landscapes and buildings -- Monet's exquisite series of haystacks, poplars and cathedral façades -- that made the artist's reputation in the late 1800s. Most of the paintings come from the last 25 years of his career, when he was losing his eyesight as well as his place at the front of the European art mainstream, and concentrating on the backwater setting of ponds and gardens at his home in Giverny, along the Epte River northwest of Paris.

Impressionism's explosion of light, which shattered the visual solidity of things into fleeting optical sensations, is still visible in these works. Yet Monet pursued it with a gestural hand that dematerialized willow trees and wisteria into rains of color and pushed his close-up depictions of water lilies and other flowers to the verge of becoming abstract plays of color and line.

Compared with his early outdoor paintings, these works have the insularity of a painter sinking deeper into his own sensibility -- and away from the outside world. And for good reason. His peaceful little world was within 40 miles of the front lines of World War I.

Some scholars say the turbulence of the war and its aftermath can be seen in the agitated brushwork and sharp colors Monet used to make his views of the Weeping Willow, Japanese Footbridge and The Path With Rose Trellises. But Monet's dogged effort to master the visual setting of his country retreat seems more akin to Vermeer's pursuit of luminous stillness at a time engulfed by conflict. Like Vermeer, Monet wasn't merely depicting his world. He was attempting to perfect it -- to make it whole.

Monet's popularity didn't hatch overnight. Critics originally condemned his early works for their ordinary, snapshot views and rough handling, and for a sketchy spontaneity that defied the stuffy formulas of academic pictures (all of these characteristics have since become modern virtues). One writer characterized Monet's early work as a "savage, irreverent, disordered, heretical art."

But once critics warmed to impressionism's pixellated view of the world, and Monet's knack for pulling nuances of light and color right out of thin air, his artistic stock rose.

Yet it didn't zoom to the same extent his market has. Critics accustomed to the intellectual rigor of Cézanne criticized Monet for being "too passive," and "letting himself be too distracted by spectacles, scarcely intervening intellectually, except in matters of practical execution."

One critic claimed that instead of aiming at the mind, Monet's paintings "stop at our eyes."

But, as subsequent "advances" in art suggest, that probably isn't a bad place for a visual artist to stop.

Monet first leased the Giverny property in 1883. He bought it seven years later and began building and enlarging the ponds and gardens. He installed bridges, trellises and pathways with arbors of flowering vines. And he planted varieties of water lilies and other flowers, creating an open-air laboratory chock-full of the forms, colors and light that intrigued him -- a place where he could create paintings that had what he called "no weather and no season."

This was a change from his earlier works, which were often done in series to capture the changing light of weather, times of day and seasons. Art historians joke that you can set your watch by some of those earlier works. And there's some truth to it. The art dealer Ambroise Vollard once recounted seeing Monet get out of his car, look at the sun, check his watch and say, "I'm a half-hour late. I'll come back tomorrow."

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