Monet’s Love Affair with Giverny at the Albright-Knox

By Hall Groat II

Artists for centuries have painted still lifes of bowls, fruit, and fowl resting on a tabletop. Artists, such as Chardin and Cezanne, spent painstaking hours intricately composing these objects in their studios to paint. This was common practice. The still life allowed the artist to be in control because they could arrange the objects the way they wanted to achieve the ideal composition to paint. On the other hand, the artists who painted on location outdoors were presented with a situation that was beyond their control. The artist was at the mercy of Mother Nature and her incessant change. Wind, rain, snow, sun, and continuous change of temperature all set the stage for an unpredictable setting.

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Water Lilies (Nymphčas)     1903     
Oil on canvas    28.75" x 36.25

The appearance and position of objects in nature such as, trees, grass, water, flowers were in constant flux. An artist could go out into the landscape to paint a clump of flowers in full bloom on Sunday, and then the next day see them slumped over. When painting from the landscape these frustrating experiences would often take place.

It was over a century ago in Giverny, a humble town in France, that Claude Monet created a unique world that still exists today. For Monet and his garden at Giverny, the landscape became an ideal setting to paint from. It would be managed to look beautiful on a daily basis. In essence, the landscape was treated as a still life. I’m sure Monet once said to himself "Why not control what is outdoors?" Monet created a garden that allowed him to create landscape paintings that were never before possible. The garden at Giverny was Monet’s ideal landscape setting, and could be painted repeatedly. On a daily basis Monet and his gardeners physically composed the colors, shapes, textures, and positions of the flowers and waterlilies, just as apples and bottles could be arranged in a still life. Each element of the garden was set in a way to recreate the vision of beauty Monet had in his imagination. With the assistance of his hired helpers, the gardens at Giverny were nourished in a manner that could only become ideal, and for Monet there was to be no compromise. Monet often would call out to his gardeners "Could you please push apart the cluster of waterlilies so that I can paint them later this afternoon … they are too clumped together right now – the arrangement is awkward!"

The newly renovated Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York has bravely undertaken the task of organizing the final body of work that Monet created at Giverny. On loan from the Musee’ Marmotten located in France are twenty-two canvases from the end of Monet’s career depicting his garden paradise. M and T Bank generously has provided funding for this exhibit.

The exhibition is well organized, both historically and thematically. The paintings are arranged chronologically, beginning with the initial impressions Monet painted of water lilies at Giverny and ending with the expressionistic renditions of irises and roses that he painted during the last few years before his death in 1926 when he was near blind.

The exhibition is presented well thematically in the sense that paintings that deal with similar subjects and styles seem to be grouped together.

This enables the viewer to make logical comparisons between the phases in painting that Monet progressed through as he aged. The wall texts present information concerning Monet’s life at different points in time, which help explain the reasons behind the change in his painting style. The beginning of the exhibition is dominated by water lily paintings that Monet created at Giverny, thirteen years after he purchased the Giverny property in 1890. At this point in his career, Monet was beginning to show the first signs of cataracts that caused his eyesight to gradually diminish.

"The garden at Giverny was Monet’s ideal landscape setting, and could be painted repeatedly"

The first work that one confronts in the exhibition is titled Water lilies (Nympheas) and is a classic example of Impressionism. It is painted in a soft palette of mauves and gray-blues, which heightens the romantic quality of the subject. In fact the first six works possess that characteristic atmospheric feeling that Monet is known for. Monet stated that he wanted to capture in paint the "beauty of the air." There is no doubt that these initial water lily paintings are atmospheric. This quality is achieved through color and the thin and soft application of paint. It is also very evident in these initial works that Monet possessed a great sensitivity for observing how light affected color and shadow. Water lilies and the reflections of clouds on water were the only subject matter of these first few works, lending to open, unencumbered compositions. One’s eyes move freely throughout the paintings. The water lilies and reflections of sky were often painted with equal emphasis. The intensity of the color, and texture of the paint was treated the same. The result was an ambiguous relationship between what was considered the clouds and the water, causing the clouds to appear as if they are connected to the water. Critics called these works "upside down landscapes."

Included in the exhibition in the first gallery is a small display of Monet’s paint palette and prescription eyeglasses. The text that accompanies the display states that Monet had cataract surgery in 1923, and eyeglasses were specially designed to compensate for differences in color saturation. This is a clever curatorial touch.

These objects are visually intriguing, which provides the viewer with information that heightens one’s understanding of the show. Next to this display is a series of drawings that Monet created of his teachers when he was a boy. These works show a different side of Monet; many of them appear to be surreal, possessing distorted facial features and displaced body parts.

The remainder of the exhibition is disappointing. As soon as you leave the initial gallery and proceed to the final two exhibition areas the paintings become overworked, heavy, and morose. It is obvious that Monet was merely reacting to what he knew from memory. The memory of what he observed at Giverny when he could see clearly. At this point in his life he was not able to identify subtle changes in color and form. The color and form become expressionistic. In the piece called Weeping Willow, the subject of the tree is barely identifiable. The brushstrokes of paint merely replicate the movement of the tree in the wind. Color does not capture the fleeting effects of light on the tree, as in earlier works. The suggestion of form appears clumsy, lacking the sensitive handling of earlier Monet works. As a whole, the paintings in this section share close ties in many ways with the New York Abstract Expressionists, and many of the artists who were part of this movement probably studied these works closely. The works seem to be more concerned with the process, and effects of the paint on the canvas surface, rather then the subject at hand.

Upon leaving the gallery I asked a women what she felt about the exhibition and she stated, "The water lilies were beautiful." She definitely was not referring to what she just saw in the second half of the exhibit. Visitors seemed to feel comfortable with what was presented in the first half of the exhibit, and had no words for what they saw at the end. The paintings that Monet created of colorful and romantic water lilies could be considered an icon of French Impressionism. They are what we know and love about Monet. They are the paintings that are presented in art history books. It is incredible to realize that a painter as great as Claude Monet still had the ability to make artwork of lesser quality. It is obvious that the works towards the end of this exhibition were his weak ones. It is a shame that with all the masterful Monet paintings throughout the world that a few of them couldn’t have been included in this exhibit. However, the Albright-Knox has been very generous and brave to show us the works that Monet created during his love affair with his garden at Giverny.