“Houses by the Zaan at Zaandam” (1871) is among the dramatic and appealing  works on view through May 29 in "Monet: The Early Years" at the Legion of Honor. (Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

“Houses by the Zaan at Zaandam” (1871) is among the dramatic and appealing works on view through May 29 in "Monet: The Early Years" at the Legion of Honor. (Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

‘Monet: Early Years’ reveals a master in the making

Before he created his water-lily scenes and other Impressionist masterworks, Claude Monet was painting stunningly accomplished and eye-pleasing pictures that reflected the development of his daring and radical ways of depicting light.

More than 50 of them, painted between 1858 to 1872, are on view in San Francisco at the Legion of Honor in “Monet: The Early Years,” the first major U.S. exhibition devoted solely to the artist’s early career.

Monet (1840-1926), who came of age during the realist times of Gustave Courbet and evolved into a cofounder and prolific master of Impressionism, was known for his rebellious style — including swiftly applied brushstrokes of mixed color, which produced a rippling or glistening effect.

At first, critics blasted the style as unfinished when Monet (and Pierre-August Renoir, Camille Pissarro and others) debuted it in a 1874 exhibition. These works would later, of course, be revered.

Curated by George Shackelford of the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, “Monet: The Early Years” features an international assortment of landscape, portrait and still-lifes by the Paris-born Monet, who lived in London and Holland for a spell.

“View Near Rouelles” (1858), a landscape Monet painted at age 17, demonstrates his roots in tradition, with dark contours and patches of solid colors. It was painted outdoors, as were works by Eugene Boudin, Monet’s adventurous mentor.

Two remaining pieces of “Luncheon on the Grass” (1865-66) — which Monet intended to submit to the prestigious but conservative and often disapproving state-sponsored Salon – are the exhibition’s biggest works. Inspired by the painting of the same name by Édouard Manet (who influenced many Impressionists), Monet’s never-completed painting features a common Impressionist subject: bourgeois French folk at leisure.

Not long after, Monet’s paintings began to look much like his famous Impressionist masterworks: “Magpie” (1869), an ambitious winter landscape featuring a bird perched on a fence, is a luminous picture of sun-lit snow and passing moments of nature.

“La Grenouillere” (1869), a painting of the popular bathing resort, is a shimmering, atmospheric portrait of middle-class recreation.

In “Houses by the Zaan at Zaandam” (1871), hundreds of tiny patches of rose, brown, white and green demonstrate Monet’s gifts for balancing representation and technique and creating optical treasures.

Still-life paintings, at the time considered lightweight but income-generating, include “Still Life With Flowers and Fruit” (1869), a luxurious-looking work painted by Monet from a composition Renoir helped assemble.

Another standout is “The Red Kerchief” (1869), a portrait of Camille Doncieux, Monet’s future wife, who stands outside, looking into the house, as if reacting to something unexpected. It’s strikingly affecting.

An exhibit of late-career works by Monet, also curated by Shackelford, is set to open at the Legion in 2019.


Monet: The Early Years
Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes May 29
: $35
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.orgClaude MonetGeorge ShackelfordImpressionismKimbell Art MuseumLegion of HonorMonet: The Early YearsMuseums and GalleriesVisual Arts

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