Jackie Wullschlager on the Monet and Gérôme exhibitions in Paris

The French capital brilliantly dramatises both the 19th century’s aesthetic battleground and its lively, essential continuation today

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In 1866, Claude Monet depicted his lover Camille Doncieux in a bright summer garden in a canvas that sought to reconcile the painting of modern life, monumentality, sunlight and atmospheric effects in radical terms. The work was rejected by the Paris salon, plunging 26-year-old Monet into a spiral of misery: Doncieux was pregnant, Monet’s father cut off his allowance, the couple nearly starved.

Now one of the world’s most famous paintings, “Woman in a Garden” eventually found a Russian buyer and ended up at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. But it is back in Paris this autumn. Reproduced on flags and posters across the city, it announces the most comprehensive Monet exhibition ever mounted, and the first in the French capital for three decades.

It joins star international loans, including its immediate successor “Garden at Sainte-Adresse”, from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, painted when Monet was accepted back home in Normandy – leaving Doncieux ill and struggling in Paris. From a high vantage point, Monet painted his family on a coastal terrace, dividing his composition into three planes – garden, sea, sky – that appear to rise parallel to the surface of the canvas rather than recede into space.

Resonant with the beauty of the waves, notated in brief calligraphic swirls, this early masterpiece holds Monet’s future concerns: the sparkle of light on water; the horizontal bands of abstraction; serenity achieved on canvas at terrific psychic cost. A year later, Monet attempted suicide.

The story of a long, lonely, exhilarating path to modernity, the Grand Palais’ Claude Monet has no rivals as European exhibition of 2010. It gains piquancy, however, because across the Seine the Musée d’Orsay has just launched a rather different retrospective, devoted to Jean-Léon Gérôme, Monet’s vociferous adversary. In 1866, as it happened, Gérôme painted his landmark picture, “The Slave Market”: highly finished in cold, academic style, it is a provocative image of a naked girl having her teeth examined, as if she were a horse, by extravagantly clothed, turbaned Arab merchants.

Today, it is inexplicable that decorous Doncieux in white gown with parasol was rejected by the same salon that fell enraptured over Gérôme’s voyeuristic fantasy of subjugation.

By 1870, Gérôme was rich, celebrated, influential. His belief that if the state accepted “such rubbish” as Monet and Manet, “then moral fibre has seriously withered”, helped keep the Impressionists impoverished. Shortly after his death in 1904, though, Gérôme dropped from view; the Musée d’Orsay’s retrospective is Paris’s first since then. It boldly claims Gérôme as newly pertinent: a conceptualist whose embrace of kitsch prefigured today’s “precise, perverse kind of beauty”. The contrast with Monet’s art of poetry and emotion is riveting.

The achievement of Claude Monet is that, although it contains 200 works, it unfolds so gracefully and intelligently that every piece holds its place; the show never feels too big. Broadly chronological, it encompasses the range of Monet’s investigations – decorative pieces with accents of pure colour such as the enormous fragment “Luncheon on the Grass”, anticipating Gauguin and Bonnard, for example – but concentrates on stunning assemblages of whole series: smoke-whipped St Lazare stations; the Thames paintings; lines of poplars in sunshine, in purple twilight, mirrored in the river Epte.

Above all, it shows how Monet had the nerve and vision to push Impressionism to its inevitable conclusion. This meant, after the initial dazzle, fresh naturalism and perfect-pitch tone of the 1869-1874 Seine pictures – “Bathers at La Grenouillère”, “Regatta at Argenteuil” – choosing ever brighter subjects to maintain the thrill of capturing the sensation of light on the motif. Always attracted to water, he depicted through the 1880s sun on snow in the suburbs in “The Church at Vétheuil”, cliffs reflected in the sea in shifting weather in Normandy, then blistering Mediterranean sun, as in the just controlled tangle of light-suffused foliage in “The Moreno Garden at Bordighera”.

The year 1890, when Impressionist mastery was assured, was a turning point: with his series of haystacks and cathedrals, Monet set about proving that nature’s most formless motifs and man’s most intricate monuments stood equal before a painter of light. He became increasingly abstract, yet more lyrical, fraught, expressive, responding intensely at his Giverny garden to a world at once natural and created by his imagination.

With his carefully orchestrated ponds and flowers transposed into watery blots of colour and streams of liquid paint, Monet here seems to encompass everything that the abstract painterly sensibility would achieve in the next century. Jackson Pollock has nothing on the dense “Weeping Willows, Giverny”, painted 1920-1922 in memory of the first world war’s fallen soldiers; the voluptuous “Red Water Lilies” (1914-1917) evokes late Cy Twombly, on show up the road at Gagosian’s new Paris gallery.

If Monet points to Twombly, Gérôme, according to the Musée d’Orsay, is ancestor to Jeff Koons – a reproduction of “Dirty Jeff on Top” opens the catalogue to a show positing Gérôme as the pivot between history painting and Hollywood. His “Serpent Charmer” writhes naked with a snake before the turquoise-tiled Topkapi Palace. A harem of classical nudes parade through “The Grand Bath at Bursa”. In “The Grief of the Pasha”, a black prince mourns a magnificent tiger lying dead, like a beloved courtesan, on a bed of roses.

Gérôme delivered these oriental dreams with what appeared to be devastating authenticity. Fabulously popular, his paintings were widely reproduced for the mass market. Like Hollywood and Koons, he collapsed high and low boundaries, confused sincerity and deliberate artifice. A die-hard conservative, he has long been a byword for academic sterility, racism, sexism. In our post-political age, a mantle of conceptual staginess suits him: in Gérôme, as Zola noted, “the subject matter is everything, the painting is nothing; the reproduction is worth more than the work.”

Art history goes in loops of fashion and remembrance, alternately playing up expressive or conceptual strategies. With these two shows, Paris brilliantly dramatises both the 19th century’s aesthetic battleground and its lively, essential continuation today.

‘Claude Monet: 1840-1926’, Grand Palais, Paris, to January 24, www.grandpalais.fr

Jean-Leon Gérôme, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, to January 23, www.musee-orsay.fr. Then Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, March 1-May 22, www.museothyssen.org

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