With the presidential election over, some investors are making bold moves, while others are taking cautions steps. A recent story in the Wall Street Journal claims the art market is in a “still life” mode. Sales have shrunk, according to the WSJ. Nonetheless, Christie’s is expected to seek a forty-five million dollar opening bid on one of Claude Monet’s Grainstack’s, a pink and purple one, painted in 1890-1891, late in the French Impressionist’s career.
On a recent trip, I stopped at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, to see “Monet: The Early Years,” a ground breaking exhibit devoted to the first phase of the artist’s career. At that time, Monet was establishing his reputation but having a tough time selling his work. Of course, one is tempted to imagine Monet, standing before an easel in the great beyond, a knowing smile on his face, as he acknowledges the astronomical amounts of money now paid for his work.
Organized by the Kimbell Art Museum in collaboration with the Art Museums of San Francisco, the exhibit thoroughly catalogues the development of Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) artistic genius and his total devotion to the development of his artistic talents. The exhibit features roughly sixty paintings created between the artist’s Normandy debut in 1858 until 1872, when Monet settled in Argenteuil, on the River Seine near Paris.
The paintings are not the sun-dappled, bright, pastel-colored fields, ponds and cathedrals we’ve come to expect from Monet. These works are often dark, but they represent the same subjects that engaged the painter throughout his life: reflections in the sky and in water, the play of light on the landscape, and the placement of people, often the size of ants, in gigantic landscapes.
Monet came of age during the period when the nature of naturalism was a matter of debate in French artistic circles, according to Richard Thomson, professor of fine art at the University of Edinburgh, whose essay, Emergent Naturalism, is included in the exhibition’s catalog. Questions over what painting should be and what it’s responsibilities occupied French artists no matter what school they belonged to. As young painters were drawn to painting from nature, questions remained. How that might best be done? How do you articulate an individual identity?
That’s the theme of the exhibit, according to George T. M. Shackelford, the Kimbell’s deputy director: Monet’s search for a notion of himself. Although, there were periods of self- doubt – after an initial sale, many of the artist’s early works were rejected by the Salon in Paris, leading to financial hardship – Monet kept at it.
From the beginning he was confident, says Thomson. “Even in is earliest works, his considerable skill in portraying a great variety of natural effects – of light, weather and atmosphere – is readily apparent,” Tomson writes. Monet’s work brimmed with confidence and authority, which critics noted.
His choice of subjects tested his gifts, Thomson writes. “Part of this process was honing his sensibility, the artist constantly questioning himself: What brings out the best in me when I paint? How do I respond to this motif and this effet? How do I put it down in paint?”
The Magpie is a good example. The 1869 painting of a sunlit snowy landscape is the most ambitious of all of his winter landscapes painted during that period. From the beginning, Monet considered the painting a serious work. The canvas is large. Although, the Paris Salon rejected the Magpie, the painting clearly demonstrates Monet’s skills. The values demonstrated show the painter’s ability to use sharp contrasts to depict a snowy landscape illuminated by a pale winter sun capable of warming a magpie if only for a moment. The shadows, indeed ephemeral, are evident. Gazing at the painting, the viewer almost shudders from the cold.
A willingness to experiment and create works such as this over the length of his long prolific career guaranteed that Monet would become the grand old man of Impressionism, a period which deserves a closer look. In the fall of 2018, the Kimbell Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will present “Monet: The Late Years.”