August 2019

by Miriam Cosic

‘Monet: Impression Sunrise’ at the National Gallery of Australia
Impressionism’s namesake painting is at the heart of a masterful collection from the Musée Marmottan Monet

Impression, sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas, 50 x 65 cm. Gift of Victorine and Eugène Donop de Monchy, 1940, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. © Christian Baraja SLB

It’s hard to imagine finding something new to say about yet another blockbusting impressionist exhibition. And yet, Monet: Impression Sunrise gives a surprisingly fresh take on the emblematic painter of the movement. Instead of presenting him having sprung, like Athena, fully armed from Zeus’s brow, this exhibition places him as a first among equals, surrounded by and inspired by European painters who were pushing similar boundaries.

Art history orthodoxy makes a turning point of the rebellious exhibition in which Claude Monet’s Impression, sunrise, depicting the port of Le Havre enveloped in morning mist, first appeared in public. It was in the first independent show he and his friends – Cézanne, Pissarro, Degas, Morisot, Renoir and others – organised, in Paris in 1874, and its title gave rise to the name of their movement.

Conservative critics and other supporters of the Royal Academy, which held its own illustrious exhibition of “real” art annually, were scathing about the sketchiness of the works. They could not yet understand that light and colour were replacing form as the primary aspect of artistic perception. One of them, Louis Leroy, coined the term “impressionism” contemptuously, apropos of Monet’s painting, and the name stuck. Between them, they seemed unsure whether the artists were lazy, seeking notoriety or just having a lend.

What’s more, the impressionists abandoned the grand themes of art: history, myth, great men and the soft porn of odalisques. Instead, they looked at everyday life – nature, landscapes, work, shopping, interiors, bars – and they worked mostly in situ to get down the essentials, working fast to capture the light. Plein-air painting wasn’t new, but in the second half of the 19th century it became essential.

More open-minded critics viewed the show with interest. Jules-Antoine Castagnary, a liberal in politics, forward-looking in his art criticism and the first to promote the importance of impressionism, explained the word in a positive light and called the group’s work in the 1874 show “a collective force within our disintegrating era”.

Most of the Monets in this exhibition come from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, which has the largest holdings of the artist’s work, including the estate of his son, Michel Monet. The Canberra exhibition was organised by the museum’s head curator, the erudite and imaginative Marianne Mathieu.

That the NGA has been lent the emblematic painting is an honour. But more interesting, perhaps, is the lineage Mathieu presents. Some of Monet’s influences seem obvious, such as the master of light, the English painter of the sublime, J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851), whose work he saw in quantity during his stay in London during 1871 and 1872 while in flight from the Franco-Prussian War. The Canberra exhibition contains several of Turner’s works, including three watercolours of the working harbour at Le Havre. It bears remembering – and it’s a tribute to the artist’s genius – that although Turner often worked en plein air, these atmospheric paintings were made in his studio.

Closer to home, Eugène Boudin (1824–98), with whom Monet worked briefly in Trouville en route to London, and Gustave Courbet (1819–77) were influences on the younger painter and the show contains examples of both. Boudin’s include three detailed paintings of Le Havre’s port, an 1884 painting of the sun going down over the port that exhibits more than a hint of Monet’s view, and an intensely moody painting of the port of Antwerp.

The writer Gustave Geffroy, who admired Monet, wrote: “Eugène Boudin is one of the immediate precursors of impressionism, together with Corot and Jongkind. He has perceived that opaque black does not exist, and that air is transparent.”

The Dutch painter Johan Jongkind (1819–91), famous in his day for his seascapes, may be less well known. He, Boudin and Monet painted together on the Normandy coast in the 1860s, and when Monet saw his work, he was struck by the Dutchman’s use of colour composition. “From this moment on,” Monet said, “he was my true master, and it is to him that I owe the final education of my eye.” Six of Jongkind’s paintings are in Canberra and, although his palette is much darker and more “classical” than Monet’s, one can see how he had already begun to fracture light and to give as much importance to atmosphere as to narrative content.

There is also a fascinating forensic examination of the location of Impression, sunrise. Le Havre was destroyed in World War Two, and it has been a pet project of Mathieu’s to discover exactly where Monet was looking when he made the painting and whether it was indeed at sunrise or, maybe, at sunset. She began a study, working with Le Havre’s archives and examining many of the other artists’ depictions contained in the show.

Mathieu told me that in the 85th-anniversary year of the opening of the Marmottan, the museum was keen to organise an international exhibition and to present recent research on the painting and on impressionism in general. The exhibition was conceived for the NGA and will spend three months here, before returning home. “The beginning of the exhibition will lead people from one painting to another, from one scene to another, and it emphasises the influence of the British School and the French school on Monet's painting.”

Harbours, their purpose and their operation do not constitute the entirety of the show. Many paintings by Monet and others show the social side of beachside gatherings. Alfred Sisley’s pretty Spring near Paris. Apple trees in blossom (1879), depicting a farmhouse by an orchard under a cloudy sky, and Berthe Morisot’s At the ball, also known as Woman with a fan (1875), show more domesticated scenes.

Monet’s paintings, displayed in the second section of the exhibition, were chosen for their provenance. They include scenes on the beach at Trouville, landscapes in the snow, an aerial view of the gardens of the Tuileries, his famous Haystacks, midday (1890), which the NGA itself owns, and many more.

Impression, sunrise, which is small and looks far less dramatic on the wall than it does on the cover of the catalogue, was overlooked for many years and resold quite cheaply even as Monet’s reputation was rising. In 1878 it fetched 210 francs at auction and the Marmottan inherited the picture from his daughter. Indeed Mathieu pointed out that, in contrast, three other pictures in this exhibition – The Pont de l’Europe. Saint-Lazare Station (1877), The train in the snow (1875) and Les Tuileries (1876) – were considered masterpieces in their time. Impression, sunrise wasn’t even hung at the opening of the Marmottan.

It is interesting to see his later paintings in Canberra, such as the pale and highly abstract Waterloo Bridge (1888–1901), the waterlily paintings of just a little later, and the dark and densely impressionistic The Japanese bridge (1918–19), and to remember that his eyesight was deteriorating, something that art historians often forget in their more colourful flights of visual analysis. Cataract operations in 1923 were not as successful as Monet had hoped and he died three years later.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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