This fall’s over-the-top exhibition at the Denver Art Museum is Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature. The enormous show is devoted to Claude Monet, the impressionists' impressionist whose paintings inspired the creation of the term “impressionist” — which, hard as it is to believe today, was intended as an insult by Louis Leroy, the writer who coined it in 1874. But Monet and his artistic travelers had the last laugh when they immediately embraced the moniker.
The show is a joint effort of the DAM and Germany’s Museum Barberini in Potsdam, where a slightly different version of the exhibit will be mounted next spring. It turns out that Christoph Heinrich, the DAM’s director, has known the Barberini’s director, Ostrud Westheider, since the start of their respective museum careers decades ago, and together they conceived of this combined project. The curators are the DAM’s Angelica Danio and the Barberini’s Daniel Zamani, who also put together the meaty catalogue. While the show spans Monet’s life and career, it does not cover his entire oeuvre, and some famous series are left out. Instead, it focuses almost exclusively on his landscapes, seascapes and familiar garden views, as indicated by the subtitle, The Truth of Nature. Even so, this is a marathon of a show, with 120 paintings filling all of the galleries on two floors of the Hamilton Building.
The curators organized the works according to where Monet painted them; the artist moved around quite a bit and traveled fairly extensively. In addition to the typical spots any nineteenth-century European artist would want to visit — Paris, Normandy, the French and Italian Riviera, and Venice — Monet also ventured farther afield, going to Holland, England and even Norway and other places. Not only was he intent on capturing each of these locales, but to do so repeatedly from the same or a similar vantage point at different times of day and during different seasons, so that he could capture the effect of transitory light as it bounced off the elements in his chosen spot.
Because of this geographic focus, the exhibit has not been laid out in a strictly chronological way, though the earliest paintings are at the beginning and some of the latest ones are at the end. Still, one of the very latest, “Water Lily Pond,” from 1918, is presented almost as a teaser at the start, installed in one of a series of spaces that provide the lead-up to what’s ahead, with text panels and blown-up photos of the artist. Once I got into the show itself, I understood the placement of this very work: The paintings in the first gallery don’t even look Monet-esque, and that might put off those with only a casual knowledge of the artist. “Water Lily Pond” is a dreamy, atmospheric scene, the water and flowers essentially suggested as opposed to rendered, and it’s the kind of freely painted, all-over composition that clearly anticipates the paintings of abstract expressionists working decades later. (Don’t worry: There are more water lily paintings at the show’s finale.)
An initial vignette reveals that Monet started as a realist, with work closely related to the Barbizon school. His “View from Rouelles” was done in 1858, when he was eighteen years old, and its style is indistinguishable from that of his early mentor, Eugène Boudin, whose painting here is one of the few in the show not by Monet. Monet met Boudin when he was painting on a Normandy beach; Boudin was a pioneer of plein air painting, and Monet adopted the method for much of his career. In both the Boudin and Monet paintings, trees provide a backstop to a foreground of stream and meadow; the light-filled yet clouded skies have been captured perfectly. Other paintings at the start of the show have much the same character.
In the early 1870s, Monet had his impressionist breakthrough, as illustrated by “The Port of Le Havre, Night Effect,” from 1873, in which the relationship of different colors conveys a harbor after dark. This was the same year the artist realized that short dashes of paint could be used to stand in for more fully expressed details while still allowing the representational illusion to come through. Skipping ahead a few galleries, after fleeing to England and then Holland as a refugee from the Franco-Prussian War, Monet settled in Argenteuil, a town on the Seine not far from Paris, where he spent most of the 1870s. At first, “Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil” is a purely bucolic sight, the river banks lined by trees with turning leaves — but in the purply mists of the background are the smokestacks of factories. The painting is stunning. Farther along are remarkable winter scenes, some done in France, some in Norway, with a palette dominated by icy whites, pinks and purples. While a number of these works are choice, my pick is “Sunset at Lavacourt,” from 1880, in which the setting sun is an intense orange circle floating above the hills that lie beyond an expanse of frozen water.
Paintings done on the Riviera and in Venice capture a very different atmosphere. The Venetian paintings are strikingly modern in sensibility. Painterly flourishes turn 1908’s “The Doge’s Palace” and, even more so, “The Palazzo Contarini,” also done in 1908, into hallucinations in which the buildings seem to be melting into the lagoon. The next gallery, with scenes of London, is also a standout: The three very Turner-esque views of Waterloo Bridge, including one painting owned by the DAM, are breathtaking.
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The last three sections display Monet’s paintings done in Giverny, in the north of France — where he moved with his family in 1883 and lived until he died, in 1926 — so much of what we’ve already seen overlaps this timeline. There is a trio of his famous haystack paintings, a wide-ranging group of works in which Monet converted the ubiquitous countryside sight into a truly iconic object, obsessing over light and shadow to define its shape.
The show culminates with depictions of Monet’s ambitious, Japanese-style gardens around his home in Giverny, which has been restored and is maintained as a museum. The oldest of these is 1899’s “Water-Lilies with Japanese Bridge,” and it’s the most conventional from a pictorial sense, essentially a landscape set in a garden. Many of the water lily paintings are more radical, comprised of just the partly submerged flowers and reflections on the surface of the water. The newest of the garden paintings, those from 1914 to 1918, such as the “Water-Lily Pond,” are virtually pure abstractions and suggest action painting and automatism.
Monet is one of those artists who is so widely known, he’s only a $100 question on Jeopardy, not a $2,000 one. Because of this familiarity, Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature, which just opened, is already enormously popular at the DAM, bringing in droves of visitors. And even though some of his famous series have been left out, viewers will come away impressed not only by what Monet did during his long and illustrious career, but the fact that the museum was able to pull off something of this magnitude.
Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature, through February 2, the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, denverartmuseum.org.