Monet’s Letters Paint a Picture of the Man Behind the Masterpieces

Claude Monet, Grainstacks, Snow Effect, 1891.

Collection of Shelburne Museum: Gift of Electra Havemeyer Webb Fund, Inc., 1972- 69.1.
Claude Monet, Grainstacks, Snow Effect, 1891.
Monet’s correspondence writes the story behind the Denver Art Museum’s new comprehensive exhibition.

Monet’s correspondence writes the story behind the Denver Art Museum’s new comprehensive exhibition.

Private collection/Roger-Viollet, Paris/Bridgeman Images

Claude Monet in his studio, 1920.

Showcasing 125 Monet works from 80 lenders in 15 countries, the exhibit’s title, The Truth of Nature, draws from the artist’s leitmotif in his letters: his devotion to capturing the essence of a site.

Monet, of course, captivated the art world with his innovative Impressionism. But the prolific landscape painter was also a prolific letter writer. The French artist’s correspondence allowed curators to better get to know the man in question for Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature—the most comprehensive exhibition of his works in roughly 25 years. The show opened to the public October 21 and shows through February 2, 2020, at the Denver Art Museum (DAM).

The DAM’s Curator of European Art Before 1900, Angelica Daneo, hails from Italy, near the border with France. Fluent in French, Daneo read Monet’s missives with nothing lost in translation.

“I like to start, if available, from primary sources and words of the artists—letters, in the case of Monet. All of his letters were published in French,” Daneo said. “For me, personally, that was an important starting point.”

Daneo acknowledged that there is a vast scholarship surrounding Monet’s work and admitted she wondered what the DAM could add to the deep well of research and critique.

“To contribute, we wanted to be able to go back to the beginning and form our own opinions. The letters were extremely helpful. I had to read the originals, otherwise I was missing his recurrence of eagerness to grasp the spirit of a place,” Daneo said.

Private collection

Claude Monet, Landscape in Île Saint-Martin, 1881.

Showcasing 125 Monet works from 80 lenders in 15 countries, the exhibit’s title, The Truth of Nature, draws from the artist’s leitmotif in his letters: his devotion to capturing the essence of a site. Monet struggled with his canvases, as his letters testify.

“The way he phrased things to his wife with candor, we see his frustration toward not being able to get the painting right and his dissatisfaction. Monet was understanding clearly not just painting landmarks and natural terrain, but the atmosphere and emotional response of the artist,” Daneo said.

Oftentimes in his correspondence, Monet complains that he didn’t find the right tone or grasp the spirit or finally understand a place enough to paint it to his satisfaction.

“His letters are full of his search to get to the truth of nature increasingly toward the series in the 1890s, when he paints over and over the same subject and angle. He wants to paint a combination of real understanding of nature, atmosphere, the way the color of the moment changes the same object five minutes later,” Daneo said. “To me, that shows his understanding that color, light and atmosphere affect the nature of an object.”

In her research, Daneo also read Monet interviews.

“Monet was a savvy entrepreneur. He managed his persona and had a clear idea of the place to be in artistry and how to navigate the market,” Daneo said. “He was clever.”

The exhibit showcases some of Monet’s earliest works, including a couple of drawings, and progresses to some of the very last paintings of his career. Yet what sets the exhibit apart, aside from sheer volume, is the focus on geographical locations.

“We looked at as many exhibitions as we could find, but we didn’t find a comprehensive response to places—very specific places at very specific moments in Monet’s career: the South of France, London, Venice, Norway,” Daneo said. “This is something we can contribute and will provide the narrative of the show.”

Claude Claude Monet at Giverny, 1908.
Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France / Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images

Claude Claude Monet at Giverny, 1908.

Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, Reflections on the Thames, 1899–1904.
The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Helen and Abram Eisenberg Collection, BMA 1945.94. Photography by Mitro Hood.

Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, Reflections on the Thames, 1899–1904.

Claude Monet, Fishing Boats, 1883.
Frederic C. Hamilton Collection, bequeathed to the Denver Art Museum, 37.2017.

Claude Monet, Fishing Boats, 1883.

Claude Monet, House of the Customs Officer, Varengeville, 1882. 
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum: Bequest of Annie Swan Coburn, 1934.27. Photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Claude Monet, House of the Customs Officer, Varengeville, 1882. 

Claude Monet, Path in the Wheat Fields at Pourville, 1882.
Frederic C. Hamilton Collection, bequeathed to the Denver Art Museum, 2016.365.

Claude Monet, Path in the Wheat Fields at Pourville, 1882.

Claude Monet, The Artist’s House at Argenteuil, 1873.
The Art Institute of Chicago: Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection, 1933.1153. Image courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago under CC0 Public Domain Designation.

Claude Monet, The Artist’s House at Argenteuil, 1873.

Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873-1874.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: the Kenneth A. and Helen F. Spencer Foundation Acquisition Fund, F72-35. Photo courtesy Nelson- Atkins Media Services / Jamison Miller.

Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873-1874. 

Claude Monet, The Canoe on the Epte, about 1890.
Collection Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand: Purchase, 1953. Inv. MASP.00092. Photo by Eduardo Ortega.

Claude Monet, The Canoe on the Epte, about 1890.

Claude Monet, The Doge's Palace, 1908.
Brooklyn Museum: Gift of A. Augustus Healy, 20.634.

Claude Monet, The Doge's Palace, 1908.

Claude Monet, The House Seen Through the Roses, 1925-26.
Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Claude Monet, The House Seen Through the Roses, 1925-26. 

Claude Monet, The Parc Monceau, 1878.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr. Purchase Fund, 1959, 59.142. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art under CC0 Public Domain Designation.

Claude Monet, The Parc Monceau, 1878. 

Claude Monet, The Strada Romana at Bordighera, 1884.
Private collection.

Claude Monet, The Strada Romana at Bordighera, 1884.

Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond, about 1918.
Private collection.

Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond, about 1918. 

Claude Monet, Under the Poplars, 1887.
Private collection.

Claude Monet, Under the Poplars, 1887.

Claude Monet, View from Rouelles, 1858.
Marunuma Art Park, Asaka.

Claude Monet, View from Rouelles, 1858. 

Claude Monet, Waterlilies and Japanese Bridge, 1899.
Princeton University Art Museum

Claude Monet, Waterlilies and Japanese Bridge, 1899.

Claude Monet, Windmills near Zaandam, 1871.
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 37.894.

Claude Monet, Windmills near Zaandam, 1871.

The exhibition maps Monet’s quest for light and landscape in areas not typically associated with the artist.

“A lot of people identify Monet with Paris and urban painting or associate him with Giverny, but if you look at the beginnings and throughout his long-life career, Monet travels,” Daneo said. “He moves from town to town, takes many trips, endures harsh conditions, long train rides in his incredible devotion to find nature in all aspects, challenging himself.”

The exhibit groups paintings by locations. And by reading Monet’s letters, Daneo came to better understand the artist’s motivation.

“Why did Monet travel?” she asked. “There was intentionality in his travels. He didn’t just stumble across pretty sights. He took intentional trips and traveled more than most Impressionists. His desire was to explore nature in all its aspects. He could have easily stayed closer to home and painted the landscapes of Normandy, but he challenged himself in finding different places. We see in the paintings the cooler tones in the South of France, palm trees and blinding light of the Italian Riviera, little islands of sinister dark rocks and a wavy sea, and then Norway—a landscape blanketed in snow.”

A handsome and hefty 280-page catalogue chronicles the blockbuster exhibition that will show only at the DAM in the U.S., then in the spring of 2020 travels to the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany. The co-organized endeavor culminates 25 years of artistic association between the director of the DAM, Christoph Heinrich, and the director of the Museum Barberini, Ortrud Westheider, who met 25 years ago as junior curators.

“Monet was in two centuries with his legs, one rooted in the 19th century, but by the end of the show the other firmly planted in the 20th century.” —Christoph Heinrich

Heinrich said, “Monet was in two centuries with his legs, one rooted in the 19th century, but by the end of the show the other firmly planted in the 20th century.”

Heinrich recalled his early attraction to Monet’s work. “I was a teenager when I saw my first Monet water lily—just a postcard in my room, but it nourished my love of the visual,” he said. “A fascinating part of the show is that a painting is more than a view out a window. A painting is an organism that lives and has life in every corner. These are vibrant surfaces. These paintings stay with you.”

Heinrich also focused on the artist’s appreciation for the natural world. He said, “Monet had a respect for and love of nature—something we could use more of these days.”

Monet’s letters also reveal his consuming consideration for his garden. He wrote, “What you’ve told me about my poor roses saddens me … Has anyone at least thought of covering my Japanese peonies? It would be nothing short of murder not to have done so.”

To augment Monet’s famous water lily paintings, the DAM partnered with Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG), where last summer a Monet garden heralded the upcoming exhibition. For the audio commentary, a DBG water lily expert provides details about Monet’s plants. A section of the show devoted to the artist’s garden includes a gallery wall festooned with a stenciled quote from Claude himself: “Aside from painting and gardening, I’m good for nothing.”

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime arts writer based in Denver.

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