By Becky D'Arcey
Claude Monet famously quipped: “Beyond painting and gardening, I am good for nothing.”
Clearly, the artist knew where his skills lay. And thanks to a groundbreaking exhibit on display at the Denver Art Museum, so too do Coloradans.
This winter, art aficionados and neophytes alike are exploring the largest exhibition of the French Impressionist’s work in more than two decades with the DAM’s “Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature.” The Mile High City is the only U.S. destination for the 120-painting exhibit, which is the product of a partnership between the DAM and the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany.
What is magic about Monet’s paintings, said Julie Merwin-Andreucci, an art history student at Metropolitan State University of Denver and incoming president of the University’s Art Guild, “is his ability to create an environment that you want to step into.” Likewise, the DAM’s presentation of Monet’s works and its interpretive programming were “a pleasant surprise,” she added. “With the beautiful music, they really created a calm and magical environment.”
Start with this primer of eight must-see Monet paintings and then get your tickets to the DAM’s “Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature,” on view through Feb. 2.
The gallery displaying Monet’s paintings of London is painted dark grey. This choice contrasts nicely with the paintings and their purple skylines. Above is a quote from the artist: “What I like most of all in London is the fog.”
His paintings from this period explore the atmospheric effects of fog in London in rich detail. In “Waterloo Bridge,” the fog can be seen hovering above the bridge, in hazy pinks and purples. Tall, indistinct smokestacks loom in the distance while pink puffs of smoke seem to float by. The texture of the water below the bridge is choppy and layered. Looking at this painting, I couldn’t help but wonder how Monet might paint Denver’s so-called brown cloud. I suspect he would be able to find the truth and beauty in even our pollution.
Of the 120 works on display, “The Geese” is one of Merwin-Andreucci’s favorites for how it “made me feel like I wanted to go on an adventure in the scene and create a narrative with it.” A closer examination of the painting shows some of the ways Monet invites us into his world. In the foreground, for instance, we see a puddle where the geese are resting. The reflective shimmer on the surface of the water is bright and playful with concentric rings rippling outward toward the viewer.
Monet painted en plein aire, meaning in plain air. For this method, Monet and other Impressionist painters went outside to paint. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like; the pressure to capture the exact moment and accurately re-create the lighting and colors must have been intense.
Consider “The Path into the Forest”: Whereas “The Geese” draws us into Monet’s world through concentric circles rippling through water, his approach here is literally straightforward, with a human-worn, shadow-dappled path vanishing into the horizon of a verdant wood.
The painting, Merwin-Andreucci said, shows Monet’s skill for “inducing curiosity of wanting to feel the moment.”
Though it is a cold, wintry scene, this painting is another example of the artist’s inviting style. In “Coming into Giverny in the Winter,” a snow-lined path curves through the composition, leading toward a small cottage. The path is lined with trees and other vegetation; the tree on the left is particularly dynamic, snaking up toward the top of the canvas. The colors are surprisingly vibrant for a scene in the snow. Bright pink dominates the sky, which might indicate that it was painted at either sunrise or sunset. The snow on the ground reflects the purple, pink and yellow in the sky, creating a wonderful balance.
Here you have another of Monet’s winter scenes, which according to the DAM audio guide was painted in Paris in December 1880, the city’s coldest December on record, which caused the Seine River to freeze. As the title implies, this painting features the ice finally melting and breaking up. The colors are less warm in this painting than the previous winter scene; chilly blues dominate the composition. Reflections in the water create a glasslike sheen, and the white chunks of ice float peacefully. Monet found it difficult to paint the ice chunks; this was one of the earliest examples of him painting a subject floating on water, rather than just the water itself, making this a precursor to his later works of water lilies.
I confess that prior to seeing this exhibit, I didn’t know that Monet painted Italian landscapes, and I was shocked to see a Monet painting with a palm tree in it. In “Strada Romana at Bordighera,” beautiful flowers crowd the canvas, with lush tropical colors. According to the wall text accompanying his paintings of Italy, “encountering the intense light and kaleidoscopic colors of the Italian and French Riviera in 1884 and 1888 was transformative for Monet. The enchanting light and exotic vegetation was unlike anything he had experienced before.” Monet described the colors he saw as jewel-like, and the warmth and cheeriness of these landscapes is fantastic.
We would be remiss not to mention water lilies in an article about Monet, who painted some 250 works featuring the rhizomatous aquatic plants. This “Water-Lilies” is different from most because of the artist’s use of round canvases. The colors featured are soft and muted greens, blues and purples. The choice of the round canvases works; the organic shape complements the close-up view of the lilies themselves.
These two works were painted late in Monet’s life, at his garden in Giverny, which, as that famous quip shows” was his life’s other passion. He meticulously crafted this garden, including the famous water-lily pond. And if it seems like this view is close enough to touch the flowers, it’s because it was. Monet had a boat fully outfitted with a studio for getting as close to the truth of nature as possible.
Becky D’Arcey earned a bachelor’s degree in Art History, Theory and Criticism from MSU Denver. While she pursues a graduate degree, D’Arcey writes about art. This fall, she also worked as a gallery host at the Denver Art Museum’s exhibit, “Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature.”
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