Review of “Monet in Giverny: Landscapes of Reflection” at Cincinnati Art Museum

March 18th, 2012  |  Published in *  |  3 Comments

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1903, oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in. (81.3 x 101.6 cm), The Dayton Art Institute, Gift of Mr. Joseph Rubin (1953.11)

Pleasing the crowd was not Monet’s aim in life, but after the Impressionists’ convention-flaunting beginnings had simmered into acceptance he had a following that allowed him to live a life style of his own choosing and to paint as he pleased. He had more or less always done the latter; the former had been chancy.

By the time he was making the works in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Monet in Giverny: Landscapes of Reflection he could be the gardener/painter he wanted to be. He had a staff of gardeners and worked with them; he painted by himself. The earliest piece in the show comes from his first year in Giverny and the latest, begun in 1918, was returned to periodically until 1926, the year of his death.

CAM Curator Benedict Leca is adept at the small exhibition with an interesting premise, shows that make the standard blockbuster seem unwieldy. Here he  has assembled a choice collection of works from a Monet period less often explored and including at least one painting never before lent: “Nympheas, Japanese Bridge,” from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He asks us to consider “reflection” in both its meanings: actuality mirrored and the thinking process so described. As it happens, both the French and the English word for reflection carry the double meaning, so Monet himself used it in the same shifting sense that the exhibition proposes.

The Museum’s Gallery 234, now its major temporary exhibition space, may be entered at either end, an awkward situation when narrative line is critical to the show. Here the narrative falls naturally into place whichever way one enters because the first response, rounding the barrier enclosing the show at one door or the other, is that you have, so speak, come into the garden. Lighting is subdued and centered on the paintings, walls are a warm gray that sets off the works, and a sense of a twilight out-of-doors prevails. A phrase from the artist is inscribed at each entrance: “’Essence of the motif is the mirror of water whose appearance alters at every moment’ Claude Monet (1909).”

It’s quickly apparent that the exhibition’s beginning is in a large niche fitted between the ramps descending from the entrance off the Great Hall balcony. In the niche a huge blow-up of a black and white photograph shows us the artist in full beard, seated beneath perhaps the very arbor suggested in some of his works.  The label setting out the precepts of the show is here, along with three of the exhibition’s earliest paintings. Among the considerations posited by the label is that “The change in Monet’s art, from the frenetic naturalism of Impressionism to the enveloping atmospheres of the large-scale works of his last years, reflects a personal journey through which he recast the terms of painting, conflating time and distance, changing motion into stillness, and using reflective effects to unmoor space from the laws of gravity and perspective.”

The show admirably provides evidence for these thoughts, with a dozen top-flight works beginning with one from 1883, the year Monet moved to Giverny, three from the 1890s, three from the first decade of the 20th century and the rest from the ‘teens into the ’20s. We are struck immediately, by two of the paintings in the niche, both of the Seine, of different ways to bring the painter’s thoughts to canvas. “The Seine at Port-Villez” (1883) is alive with brush strokes, the day is windy, the sun dappling all surfaces and the river giving back its reflected world. In contrast, “Morning on the Seine near Giverny” (1896) is as calm as the earlier work is active, its brush strokes smooth and its color range of greens and blues touched out by rose has no hint of the harsher oranges of the earlier work. Accompanying these two is a work from the familiar Poplar series, this from 1891, its ordered upper section melting into fluidity in the reflection below.

Emerging from the niche, one is likely to look first to the left where a lovely little run of four water lily paintings lines the wall. They are pleasurably individual, one in particular (from 1907) dispensing with easy access. Exactly where does reflection stop and actuality take hold? Is there a little waterfall, or are all the whites clouds above but seen below? In the largest of these four paintings, from 1916-19, serenity has taken over and deep color rules. Horizon lines do not appear in any of them.

Now, on the short wall facing the niche, is an extraordinary coupling. The earliest known footbridge painting, “The Japanese Footbridge, Giverny” (1895) is the familiar bowed bridge reflected in the pond below and next to it hangs “Nympheas, Japanese Bridge” (1918-26), with the bridge almost disappeared  in a torrent of brush strokes. The act of painting has become the subject.

The eye moves from “Nympheas” to the final wall, where more of the same is going on in “Weeping Willow” (1918).  Leca hung the two cater-cornered from each other “to give a blast,” he told a walk-through audience earlier this month. Heads nodded; a blast had been received. But more trouble lies ahead, in two wisteria paintings, one of them a double canvas, from 1919 /1920. Are we looking at wisteria against sky, or reflected in water, and what exactly is going on?  Monet is doing what Leca, in his introductory statement, told us he would do. He is “using reflective effects to unmoor space from the laws of gravity and perspective.”

In that walk-through a visitor raised the question of Monet’s deteriorating eye sight and its effect on the work. Leca replied that Monet scholars do not accept the idea that distorted vision produced these late paintings. “He had the cataract operation, he had the glasses.” And, in a show like this one, Leca perhaps wanted to say but didn’t, a visible progression of ideas is on the walls.

Monet, the gardener/painter, remains a crowd-pleaser today. Attendance at Monet in Giverny has been so strong that the Museum recently announced extended hours to further accommodate visitors, from 5 to 9 p.m., on Friday evenings through April 27.  The show closes May 13. Regular CAM hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free with a charge of $4 to non-members for parking.

— Jane Durrell

Editor’s Note:  This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.


  1. Jeff Shapiro says:

    March 19th, 2012at 11:02 pm(#)

    I had noticed that our Poplars were missing from PMA. You’ll enjoy them, I’m sure.

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