Claude Monet (1840-1926) at the Grand Palais, Paris by Michelle Nott

Until January 24, 2011, visitors and residents in proximity to Paris, France have a unique occasion to experience the work of Claude Monet. Curators traveled the world to complete this magnificent display, the largest ever, of the artist's work. Americans may even recognize various works from “home”, borrowed from museums in Cleveland, Philadelphia and Chicago, among others. Notably, this showing is not just about the lily pads. Although his history, a struggle at times, leads up to the peacefulness found in his ponds.

Considering the crowds in the initial galleries, wall to wall if it weren't for the security alarms, the last gallery is just as good a place as any to start. Not many people have never heard of Giverny. Claude Monet spent the last years of his life in the paradise of his country home. In 1917, he completed Coin de l'Etang à Giverny. The brushstrokes are long. The blues and reds are deep and dark. During this period, he was saddened by life and its losses. He had already said good-bye to two beloved wives, Camille and Alice, and his son, Jean. Nevertheless, his artistic production was much acclaimed. Suffering from cataract, his eyesight became foggy, but his colors and brushstrokes were never more applauded. Monet gifted Les Nymphéas to France requesting they be displayed after his death. These wall-sized paintings of his famous lily pads decorate the inside of L'Orangerie, not a far walk from the Grand Palais. As most people are familiar with this peaceful blue and green palette laid down with strong, comforting brushstrokes, keep them in mind while walking through the rooms and corridors of his artistic journey.

Claude Monet started drawing while still a boy. As of 1845, his family was living in Normandy. Well

after his childhood, the sights and sounds of the coast never left his soul. The visitor will recognize in his later works the same coast, but not in the same light. He would return to Le Havre and Honfleur. Monet's painting, Le Phare de l'Hospice (1864), depicts elements of variable coastal weather through gray and brown tones and diverse brushstrokes. The evolution of this feature of his work will become more apparent in the 1880s when he returns to the Normandy coast, notably in La Manneporte (1883) where the sun seems to be literally reflecting off the crashing waves and La Côte Sauvage (1886) under its threatening sky.

Initially, Monet studied landscapes in the Fontainebleau forest. The very first signs of his talent with shadows, light and texture appear in Le Pavé de Chailly dans la forêt de Fontainbleau (1865). True, Monet concentrated on scenery but never left out the people who made him happiest. Whether it be the fisherman in Le Phare de l'Hospice (1864) or his wife, Camille, and son, Jean, walking through a field in Les Coquelicots à Argenteuil (1873), his art involves the people of his life. In fact, his portrait paintings are a focal point later in this exhibit. For now, Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse (1867) depicts a lovely moment with his family right before the French and Prussian war. The sea ripples in the background as his family sits on a sunny terrace. The viewer can practically feel the sun and wind on her own cheeks. Despite this extraordinary example of Monet' s talent, its entry to the Salon was refused. But, Monet persevered .

His research of light and landscape took him and his family to Paris and the vicinity as well as down to the Mediterranean. In 1869, Monet painted La Pie. A delicate magpie sits on a ladder in front of a barn. It is incredibly white. Covered in snow, the chill blows off the canvas. But, this little bird is just the detail to bring a literally cold picture to life. Its brightness and clarity results in more of a sensation than a description. Surprisingly enough, this superb work was also refused by the Salon. The refusals were

starting to sadden the artist and, at this point, he almost stopped. But, Monet persevered.

Claude Monet wanted to be considered a modern artist. In this vein, he ventured to the Saint-Lazare train station where he was granted special permission to paint from the railways themselves (La Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877). He also had the privilege to paint views looking down from the Louvre and from a collector's balcony, Victot Chocquet, Rue de Rivoli. Possibly one of his most appreciated cityscapes of Paris is Rue Montorgueil (1878) where he illustrated the final French festivities of the World Expo , June 30th of that year. Monet's depiction of this day - short red, white and blue brushstrokes and crowds en relief – was a tribute to contemporary France. Contented, he literally signed off from Paris on this painting and moved to Vétheuil.

Always preferring to paint in the open air, the winter of 1879-80 in Vétheuil was particularly cold and severe. These elements forced the artist to finish his paintings in studio. (He returns to this method in later works, for reasons beyond weather.) La Débacle à Vétheuil (1880) demonstrates longer brushstrokes of blue, gray, green, and white shades. The result is a chilled and somber mood. The melancholy equally presents itself in Soleil Couchant sur la Seine, effet d'hiver (1880). The artist was, indeed, going through a sad time mourning the death of his wife, Camille, and finding himself alone with two children and in debt. Yet, the orange sun, albeit small but reflecting from the center of the background, hints at the possibility of hope, of a new day. Monet would soon have a reason to feel better morally. After being absent 12 years from the Salon, he exhibited three of his views of Vétheuil.

The Mediterranean sun and sea contrasts the same elements from Monet's previous coastal paintings. In Les Rochers de Belle–Ile, la côte suavage (1886), the visitor feels almost a danger between the dark, quick brushstrokes strokes composing the immense rocks. Once in the south of France, however, Monet

confessed to Gustave Geffroy on 12 February 1888 another sort of fear. “It's so beautiful here, so clear, so luminous! One swims in blue air, it's frightening.” Consequently, anyone admiring Antibes, le matin (1888) or Les Eaux Semblantes (1889) dives into his colors like a wave and soaks up the warmth of his palette. To capture such a result, Monet painted several of the same scenes by returning each day at the exact same times until finished.

As seen, Monet is most definitely a landscape artist. However, he also sought to marry nature with people in his work. Femme au Jardin (1866) perfectly positions the woman's back turned, dressed all in white, in a garden of greens and blues. The contrast of color and subject is striking. Also in 1866, Monet created Femmes au Jardin with the women's faces positioned at different angles. The light shines through the trees in such a a way that even the shadows come alive. Unfortunately, as “Le Petit Journal des Grandes Expositions no. 430” mentions (p.8), the expressions were considered caricaturelike. His painting was again refused by the Salon. Nevertheless, the artist pursued his interest in doing portraits and quotidian family scenes, which started to bring him more success. Claude Monet's most emotional portrait is of his beloved first wife, Camille. He painted her on her death bed in 1879. This piece was kept in the family for many years, far from public viewing. According to the audio-guide of the exhibit, Monet felt guilty about painting her. His rapid brushstrokes contour her pale face angelically. He painted to remember her, but also to search, once again, for colors. Only this time, he was looking for the colors of death. Less familiar, yet noteworthy aspects of Monet's repertoire, his portraits are showcased with the nature morte, or still life, paintings of everyday interior scenes.

Haystacks, poplars and cathedrals become Monet's next subjects. By 1890, he became interested in series. Through series, he could study the light on the same subject in different times of day, contrary to going back at the same times of day as he did in the Mediterranean. Because of the rapidity in which he

needed to capture the instant of each object, Monet finished the details of these paintings back in his studio. He further examined light and shadows in his series of haystacks, whereas the poplar series accentuates the effects of wind and its consequences in the clouds. His cathedrals, specifically that of Rouen, illustrate variations in weather and lighting according to the hour he his painting. The result nearly brings the stone to life.

Looking for life, Claude Monet turns inward to where he has been. He returned to the cliffs in Normandy, to Vértheuil where his love is buried and to London to repaint the fog – naturally dissolving the forms before him. Monet was now less interested in the actual landscape than in the memory and emotion his creations evoked. Again, most were terminated in the studio, taking advantage of his nostalgia and memory to recollect only the necessary details. Eventually also completing his work by memory, Monet discovers Venice for the first time. He cherished his moments with his second wife, Alice, who passed away soon after their trip. His longing painted the canvas.

After so much emotional energy, Monet went through a period considered “les Grandes Décorations”. This decorative art adorned homes of private collectors and palaces, alike. Sometimes, he painted solely for his own eyes. One decorative panel, Le Déjeuner (1873) portrays a familiar, a simply happy moment recognized in its details: a child playing outside by a breakfast table, the teacups still out, a handbag left on the bench under a branch holding a hat. A woman in white walks along the background. He painted it in Vétheuil.

The final canvases take us to where we began, contemplating the lily pads. Monet's appreciation for Japanese prints transformed itself into the garden he planted in Giverny, into its bridge reaching over its pond...where Les Nymphéas swim. Claude Monet was in constant search for the right light, the perfect

shadow and the correct palette in his paintings. This unique exhibit at Le Grand Palais allows the visitor to find it.

For more information, visit Monet (1840-1926),

Where else to find works by Monet in Paris: Musée Marmatton, Musée de l'Orangerie, Musée d'Orsay,

And 88 kilometers outside of Paris... La Fondation Claude Monet, Giverny,

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