Arts: The Unknown Monet

The Unknown Monet, Pastels and Drawings, Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Also: Side by side; Millet and Van Gogh. And: Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, The Manton Collection: Selections from the bequest to The Clark by insurance magnate Sir Edwin AG Manton.

Since time immemorial drawing has been the core discipline of art, a challenging, frustrating, evocative, simple, and straightforward way for the artist, with only pencil and paper, to show his cards and to say “this is what I can do”. Although drawings from ancient times have been lost through millennia of decay, works on paper from the Medieval period forth have survived and enriched our understanding of the underlying tradition that has produced the triumph of Western art.

“Bring my paper and pencils, I absolutely need them,” French painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) is quoted in this exhibit as once having said. And for those for whom Monet is synonymous with Impressionist painting and radiant tracts of color The Unknown Monet at The Clark Art Institute, mounted in association with the Royal Academy of Arts in London and with the cooperation of the Musee Marmottan-Monet in Paris, is eye-opening.

Surprisingly Monet began as a caricaturist and based his early work on images he saw in Paris newspapers. The work was called portrait-charge or “charged” or “loaded” portraits. Some of his efforts in this field included in the Clark exhibit are strikingly accomplished and are expectedly comical renderings of the growing circle of artists, actors, relations and intellectuals that Monet was coming to know at the same time that this lesser medium was bringing him the notice that would launch his career. Caricature of a Man with a Snuff Box (detail below) from 1858 is typically light-hearted but surprisingly adroit.

Moving beyond these early caricatures to his decision to devote himself to landscape and through his highly abstracted and simplified studies for his famous water lily paintings – dreamlike meditations that coincided with ‘modern’ art’s movement beyond pure image-making – Monet’s draughtsman hand was assured, exploratory and incisive. 

An early nature sketch like Alley of Trees, Gournay (1857) demonstrates mastery of form and space, a few wisps of pencil defining the whole concept of a rural mystique. Another 1857 drawing, Tree Trunks at La Mare au Clerc (above) shows an increasingly confident and bold style describing nature directly. By 1864 Port at Touques pictures a boat in harbor with notable maritime features, an obvious testament to Monet’s power of observation and attention to detail.

His 1865 drawing Mouth of the Seine at Honfleur is said to be his only known pen-and-ink drawing and uses a dashing scribble technique that adds flair to the seascape it describes. A later study of Michel Monet Reading from 1885 accurately shows the intensity of a young boy lost in study, in a rough-and-tumble sketch.

Throughout his career Monet filled sketch pads with drawings that served two purposes: First they were utilitarian studies which he did not consider to be artworks in their own right. And second, and revealingly, they were a means of promoting his work through the expanding mass media of the age.

“It is important to recognize that in our epoch, you can’t do anything without the press,” savvy Monet is reported to have said. And being an astute marketer of his art he used his black-and-white graphic work as entrée into the world of media and mass reproduction, which was not possible with color.

Besides the drawings this exhibit smartly shows paintings that indicate where the drawings were going. Towing a Boat, Honfleur (oil on canvas, 1864) shows not only gestures in the struggling fishermen at water’s edge but a control of color to reflect the atmospherics of coastal France, which are further expressed in a series of pastels that also are included in this exhibit.

Seascape Storm (1866-67), an oil on canvas from The Clark’s own collection, shows a dark, blunt, straightforward style and composition that could be confused for Winslow Homer. Two Anglers of 1882 also is a small oil on canvas that is shown with two lead-up pencil studies nearby. The evolution is noteworthy. Cliffs at Etretat (1885), oil on canvas, also from the Clark collection, shows the maturing Monet as a colorist benefiting from the formal discipline of his draughtsmanly training.  “I’ve never liked to separate drawing from color,” Monet once said, a statement that this painting reaffirms.

Through media reproduction, print lithography and repetitive series of paintings like his famous haystack series and his 30(!) canvases of the façade of the Flamboyant Gothic Rouen Cathedral done in 1892-94, Monet used duplication, repetition and edition techniques to spread his art, and his reputation, farther and wider. One of the Rouen canvases from The Clark’s own collection is the cathedral entrance in bright daylight, and shows Monet’s color dabbing technique at its height. While Monet painted Rouen in every mood, the nearby sketchbook shows the cathedral in just the slightest gestural outline as if the painter were observing the essential form with something bigger in mind. Another quick Rouen sketch from 1892, The Portail de la Calende and the Central Tower, shows the artist moving away from detail and toward reduction.

Passing the turn of the century Monet’s draughtsmanship and painting were moving beyond the fringe. His loopy pencil twirls represent the lily pads made famous in his series of paintings stretching into the 1920s, two lesser examples of which are included in the Clark exhibit. These sketches are but a shadow of (or an advancement upon, depending on your point of view) the solid and academically strong drawings of his youth and mid-career, and perhaps a paean to his revolutionary stature.

As early as 1900 his Charing Cross Bridge pastel is so sweet in color, and lazy and hazy in form that the bridge is virtually lost as if Monet were striving to reach the outer limits of what he saw coming, the century of abstraction that was dawning as Monet’s career was entering its final phase.

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In another very small exhibit at The Clark two works side-by-side by Vincent Van Gogh and Jean-Francois Millet show an almost identical figure sowing the fields of 19th century France. Millet’s small oil on canvas, The Sower (1865-66), was one study for his famous painting of the same name. In Millet’s harsh social realism, Van Gogh saw the nobility of rural peasants as heroic figures. So right next to the Millet is Van Gogh’s The Sower (After Millet) pencil drawing of 1881. These two works are striking in their similarity and their intent – to ennoble the struggling classes that art had ignored for centuries. And they make clear that art never represents any single point in time, but is a continuum of exploration, expression and vision.

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A selection of drawings and paintings on view in two smaller Clark galleries exhibits part of a $40 million bequest by insurance industry magnate Sir Edwin AG Manton of 200 oil paintings, water colors and studies by Britons Thomas Gainsborough, one of the premier portraitists of the Georgian era; John Constable, who nostalgically rendered the English countryside in a way that tugged at the heart of 20th century collector Manton; JMW Turner, known for his explosive renderings of atmospherics, shipwrecks and natural disasters; and others. 

In this exhibit, Gainsborough (1727-1788) shows his wide-reaching talent by taking the genre of landscape and executing it with aplomb. Rocky Wooded Landscape with a Winding Track shows delicate detail in every inch, quite a feat for a man known as a portraitist. JMW Turner (1775-1851) is represented here by, among others, Sky and Sea of 1826, which could be mistaken for a 20th century modernist work, with slashes of gray showing a turbulent seascape in minimalist fashion.

One of the most noteworthy studies in this group is Turner’s Wrecked Cathedral, a small 1822 work which shows a shattered cathedral, with light pouring in through the remaining standing window. Meanwhile John Constable (1776-1837), who said that “painting is but another word for feeling”, is represented by several works including The Wheatfield, an oil on canvas from 1816 which evokes rural British life with the wheat lovingly detailed as if the artist truly adored the land he was describing. Feeling, indeed.

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Ultimately, this entire exhibit begs a question: What is the role of landscape in Western art? Will it continue to play second fiddle to the masterful figures and portraits of the ages, or did it come to challenge us to see the canvas in a broader context in which color, form and line can converge in creating original visions that are outside of the mainstream of artistic imagery.

Monet certainly showed a penchant for that theory; his Rouen paintings are close to Jackson Pollock in the vitality of their flatness. While landscapes in Renaissance works like Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks of 1485 or even Mona Lisa (a painting which Leonardo is said to have carried with him and worked on until his death) serve as a dramatic backdrop and counterpoint to the main figures of the works –  possibly as a way to further push the entire canvas toward originality — perhaps the new possibilities posed by landscape art, along with the endlessly expressive subject of rural Europe itself, started to develop an artistic following later on in the millennium. Was it a reaction to increasingly urbanized society’s detachment from a much-idealized rural past?

By the time Millet was working, however, any sentimental attachment to the landscape was subsumed in the artistic elite’s final recognition, out loud, that there was nothing nostalgic about the brutal life in the countryside, a life from which the great artists, patrons, critics and collectors of any era traditionally have been thoroughly detached and insulated. It is important to think of this as we survey the land in person… and in art.

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