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Monet’s first reaction to exhibiting his art in America was guarded. “I confess I would regret to see my pictures sent to the land of the Yankees,” he wrote, preferring to reserve them for Paris, where “taste is still to be found.” Luckily his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, persevered – with great success. “Without America I would have been lost, ruined. The exhibitions I made there in 1886 saved me. Thanks to that public Monet . . . was enabled to live.” Six years later a lucrative US market was in full swing. A Monet exhibition was “a notable event” attended by several thousand people creating, according to a Boston newspaper, “a furor of lively demand, a boom on this side of the ocean with prices from $1,000 to $1,500.”
Thanks to rich American collectors, including an unusual number of women, today there are more works by Monet in American public and private collections than in France. All of which has contributed to the powerful Monet exhibition at Wildenstein & Co, New York. Including more than 60 major paintings from all stages of his long career (some never exhibited before; many not seen for 60 years), it is the largest survey to be held in New York in 30 years.
Key oils include classic early impressionist sun-dappled gardens or poppy fields with his wife Camille under a parasol; luminous views of the rural Seine at different times of the year; hot pulsating Mediterranean scenery from the 1880s; superb examples from his famous Rouen Cathedral and “Haystack” series and his final masterpieces – the opalescent Giverny wate rlily pictures of 1914-17.
His ability to capture “fidelity to hour of the day and season of the year” exemplify impressionism, but he, above all the impressionists, is universally loved because of the sheer joy his depictions of landscape and carefree human activity evoke. By the 1890s, the Monet juggernaut, with a steady stream of exhibitions in the US, London, Germany, Russia, Japan and Norway, established his fame and made him a very rich man.
In the accompanying catalogue Paul Tucker stresses that the starving bohemian is mostly a myth and while he and the impressionists did suffer criticism at the start, they and their radical work quickly gained support from contemporary critics. Tucker also highlights another misapprehension, that Monet only worked en plein air whatever the weather, or that his casually chosen motifs were rapidly painted in a few spontaneous brushstrokes.
Monet was, he maintains, a “consummate public relations professional who maintained a lifelong public persona,” moulding his image to suit himself. Although he started his oils out of doors, most of his 2,000 pictures were altered and adjusted for colour, composition and form back in the studio. His complex, careful, compositions were, in fact, arrived at with endless work coupled with technical brilliance and exacting craftsmanship.
Especially notable is the iconic and enchanting “Woman Reading” of 1872, on loan from Baltimore, her pink and lavender skirt awash with circles of light flickering like fireflies; an explosive Bordighera palm tree from a lucky private collector and an
almost abstract Japanese Bridge from the 1920s, its opulent swags of wisteria dissolved into radiant fiery reds, violets, purples and greens reflected in the rippling surface below.
Monet comes alive via a selection of his 3,000-plus letters, many on show here, which also include tender love letters to his second wife, Alice.
The fact that we know so much about Monet’s life and art is partly due to the late Daniel Wildenstein who, fuelled by a passionate admiration for the artist, spent more than half a century on extensive research and documentation to produce a five-volume Monet catalogue raisonné. The current exhibition, a tribute to him and to Katia Granoff, the Russian-born dealer who popularised Monet’s late works, is organised by his son Guy, the fourth generation and current president of the art dealers Wildenstein & Company, together with curator Joseph Baillio.
‘Claude Monet, (1840-1926)’ is at Wildenstein & Co, New York, until June 15, tel+1 212 879 0500, www.wildenstein.com