Can impressionism be reinvented? The late 20th century, golden age of the global blockbuster, fixed the heavyweights Monet, Degas, Cézanne et al for a generation on both sides of the Atlantic. Such overarching historical inclusiveness will never, in our times of rocketing art prices, cash-strapped museums and terrorist panic, be equalled. So the early 21st century is delivering something else: the tangential, unexpected, scholarly coda that refines the edges and attacks the fringes of these great reputations, flattering as it does so today’s more sophisticated audiences with ripples of transformation and provocation, and promises of rarity, in well-trodden terrain.

The National Gallery’s current display of Renoir landscapes is one such success. Yet more surprising and audacious is the Royal Academy’s move in The Unknown Monet to reposition impressionism’s virtuoso of spontaneity as a draughtsman and pastellist who worked on paper to prepare, explore and anticipate ideas and techniques on canvas.

Not since seven pastels hung alongside “Impression, Sunrise” at the initial impressionist exhibition in 1874 have any of Monet’s works on paper been gathered together or placed in relation to his paintings. The works here include energetic caricatures of big-headed Le Havre brokers and ship-owners made by a teenager signing himself “Oscar”; expressive drawings of the landscape around his Normandy home that are masterpieces of descriptive economy and textural richness; and late, painterly pastels of the Thames, whose delicacy and sensuality, and insistent modernity, rival that of his London canvases. This is a serious, thoughtful show, but one with instantly arresting beauty as well as brains.

That these works have been neglected for so long is entirely Monet’s fault – indeed his triumph. A self-promotional genius, he carved out a role for himself as impressionism’s leading colourist, complementing the introvert voyeur Degas as the movement’s master of line. Voluble about his dislike of Degas’ hero Ingres, French classical draughtsman par excellence, Monet looked instead to the splashy informality of Courbet and to Eugene Boudin, whose cheerful plein air freshness is recalled in the earliest pastel here, “Yport and the Falaise d’Aval”.

By 1880, when he was 40, Monet had banished sketchbooks from his studio and ensured he was photographed holding a cigarette but never a pencil. With his dashing, impetuous brushstrokes and shimmering light effects, he overturned every convention; the critic Théodore Duret wrote of his first solo show that year:

“In his case there are no longer masses of preliminary sketches, no more pencil or watercolour drawings to be used in the studio, but rather one integral oil painting begun and completed out of doors in nature, in the presence of the subject, which
is interpreted and rendered at first hand.”

Thus the myth. In fact, as for all visual artists, drawing was Monet’s creative laboratory, a place of experimentation where, in innovation and daring, he was repeatedly, inevitably, ahead of what he was doing on canvas. The bulky cliff developed out of dark contours, casual hatching and thickly accumulated crayon, set against an expanse of open sky in an early black chalk drawing “Cliffs and Sea, Sainte-Adresse” (1864), borrowed from Chicago, is a tour de force that paved the way for the rugged, dynamic matrix of his later seascapes. A chalk composition of the same date, “Houses by the Sea”, is exhibited here alongside the canvas “Rue de la Bavole, Honfleur”; clearly, its slabs of bright sunshine and shadowy cliffs and buildings are the model for the contrasting light and shade in the painting. And a trio of long, narrow pastels from 1865-70, showing a wide, bare vista, play with multiple experiences of the same landscape in different light and weather conditions two decades before – in the “Haystacks” paintings – Monet used a series in the same way on canvas.

In “After the Rain”, a verdant green, freshly washed pasture gleams under a pewter grey sky; this gives way to dense, swirling purple storm clouds in “Twilight”; then orange, yellow, white streaks unfold on the richly worked surface of “Nightfall”. Throughout, pastel’s granular softness and blur evoke the changeability of nature, which was Monet’s great subject: the pale pinks and eggshell blues of an early morning sky in Boston’s “Broad Landscape”; the movement of sunshine across red-brown and lime countryside, with dabs of gold as the light catches the saplings, in “The Seine Estuary”.

Interweaving lively graphism with intense colour, Monet by the 1880s was using pastels to explore a darker tonality, harsher chromatic contrasts or more daringly minimalist compositions than in his paintings. Broad swathes of colour and heavy gestural lines for the ochre highway and horizon in “The Road and the House” are almost expressionist. Limpid evening light behind a looming cliff makes “Étretat, the Manneporte at Low Tide” Monet’s flattest, sparest treatment of this favourite motif. The extreme verticality, brittle outlines and overcast blues, creams and browns of “Étretat, the Needle Rock and Porte d’Aval” is more dramatic, and much gloomier, than the Clark Institute’s scintillating painting of reflection and shadow, “The Cliffs at Étretat”, with which it is juxtaposed here.

Is this the private Monet? Certainly the pastels’ intimate scale and lack of iconic status – virtually none has been exhibited before – emphasise the subjectivity that is Monet’s real legacy.

“The subject is of secondary importance to me; what I want to reproduce is what exists between the subject and me,” he explained. In a handful of well-
focused sections, this small show superbly condenses the story of how, over seven decades, he did this. Yet still nothing prepares you for the diaphanous glory of the final section, where crisp chalk drawings of Waterloo Bridge and boats on the Thames are overlaid with veils of powdery pastel to convey the insubstantial effects of smoke and mist, the density of sun-stroked stonework, as London dissolves in bursts of coloured light.

While Monet was staying at the Savoy in London to paint the Thames series, the arrival of his crates of canvases was delayed, and he worked on pastels. Through them, he admitted, “I saw what I had to do”; these are among the few works on paper with which he went public, selling some, making gifts of others. The serpentine lines of cobalt, violet, white that animate the greatest of them, the Musée d’Orsay’s vibrant “Waterloo Bridge”, are echoed in the painting “Charing Cross Bridge”, borrowed from Indianapolis; though dated 1900, this was worked on until 1904 and its giant streaks and curls of paint, tremulous surface and layers of colour emphasise its affinity with the pastel. In both works everything is transient, infinitely negotiable, as hues and contours shift and realign, and it is in capturing this evanescence that Monet moved from impressionism to something closer to a symbolist outlook, and then on to the near-abstract distillation of his own meticulously created world in the last paintings of his Giverny garden.

Basel’s Fondation Beyeler, which organised 2002’s seminal Claude Monet . . . up to Digital Impressionism, tracing the heritage of what Clement Greenberg called these “chromatic and symphonic” late works to Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis and colourist filmmakers such as Pipilotti Rist today, has lent London an especially fine large “Water Lilies” canvas; another comes from New York’s Metropolitan Museum. With his motifs on his doorstep, Monet now had less need for the rapidly jotted sketch. But, “I’ve never liked to separate drawing from colour”, he announced in 1920. Drawing as well as painting, we see now, led him to go against the 19th-century materialism of determined reality and to fix on canvas the instability and interiority of vision that would make him in old age a pioneer of modernity.

‘The Unknown Monet’ is at the Royal Academy, London W1, March 17-June 10; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, June 24-September 16. Sponsored by Bank of America

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