Monet as modernist: Impressionist master changes style in final years

Having helped change how artists depicted the world in the late 1800s, premier French impressionist Claude Monet began pushing boundaries again, in the new century. His increasingly expressive and abstract canvases, painted in old age, are on view in “Monet: The Late Years,” at the de Young Museum through May 27.

Showcasing late-career Monet as a pioneering modernist, the exhibition of 48 paintings is presented by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Fort Worth-based Kimbell Art Museum. Kimbell deputy director George T. M. Shackelford, who curated 2017’s “Monet: The Early Years” at the Legion of Honor in 2017, organized this exhibit.

It follows Monet’s career from 1913, when the artist, dealing with personal loss and failing eyesight, launched his new style of painting, to 1926, the year he died, at age 86.

The featured works, depicting Monet’s consistently evolving garden at Giverny, come from Fine Arts Museums and Kimbell holdings and from international collections. A “staggering array of loans” is how new Fine Arts Museums director Thomas P. Campbell, at last week’s press preview, described the latter selections.

First up is an introductory gallery with late-1890s and early-1900s paintings. These feature a representational style and detailed imagery — in contrast to the broader and more abstract fare in the galleries that follow.

“Water Lily Pond” (“Japanese Footbridge”) (1899), one of many featured paintings from Monet’s “Water Lilies” series, exemplifies Monet’s earlier work.

The later Monet works aren’t without impressionist aspects — a fascination with the reflection of light on surfaces, for example. But primarily, they take viewers into the 1910s and 1920s, when Monet was operating on modern ground, with a new fervor.

Some pieces, such as the mural-like “Water Lilies” (1915-1926), from the “Agapanthus” triptych at the Saint Louis Art Museum, are grand in scale. The pink and white flowers and their reflections in the pond water beautifully illustrate Monet’s gift for color juxtaposition.

Smaller-scale garden-series paintings also demonstrate the artist’s modern-era style and dynamism.

A show highlight is “Weeping Willow” (1918-1919), a serial painting that rivals van Gogh’s mulberry and cypress trees for arboreal evocativeness. The series honored French soldiers who died in World War I, and many believe it additionally reflected the artist’s feelings surrounding the death of his wife and oldest son. With its twisted branches and descending greenery, the foregrounded tree conveys anguish and sorrow.

Monet’s radical and modernist sensibilities are particularly evident in “The House Seen From the Rose Garden” (1922-24), part of a series in which Monet painted the same scene repeatedly to capture changes in light. It features the artist’s technique of layering paint intensely; using this process, it sometimes took him years to complete a work.

Monet’s modernist leanings are evident in “The Artist’s House Seen from the Rose Garden” (1922-24), on loan from Musée Marmotan Monet in Paris. (Photo courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Color and form seem to overshadow objects. The barely representational title abode almost merges with the masses of swirling, gestural red and green brushwork. We can see how, decades later, such works would inspire the abstract expressionists.


IF YOU GO

Monet: The Late Years
Where: de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes May 27
Admission: $20 to $35; free for ages 5 and younger
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org

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