Inside the Denver Art Museum’s blockbuster Monet exhibition
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature’
Where: Denver Art Museum
When: Through Feb. 2
How much: $27/adults; $5/youth age 6 to 18; Free children 5 and under
More info: Get tickets in advance and plan ahead, as most weekends – and many weekdays – are already sold out through November.
Claude Monet painted while wading in the River Seine like a fly fisherman. He bundled himself up to sit for frigid hours and paint snowy winter scenes. And, of course, he crafted an idyllic garden and bred hybrid water lilies himself to create the scene he would devote himself to painting repeatedly for the last 20 years of his life.
The visionary French impressionist rejected studio painting and said, “The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.”
When the Denver Art Museum was announced as the only U.S. stop for a monumental new survey of Monet’s career — with 120 paintings, from his first known work to some of his last, it’s the most comprehensive in 25 years — many asked “Why Denver?” But seeing the museum’s “The Truth of Nature,” it’s hard to imagine it anywhere else in the U.S. but Colorado.
Viewers here — from the road-trippers coming from Aspen and across the Mountain West to art world insiders and collectors and the busloads of schoolchildren — will inherently get Monet’s single-minded pull to develop an intimate relationship with a patch of land. Monet painted the same scenes repeatedly in different seasons, in varied weather, at every time of day. He sought a symbiotic relationship with his subjects. On his canvases, he found something transcendent.
“For me, landscape does not exist in its own right,” he once explained, “since its appearance changes at every moment.”
Coloradans know the joy of returning again and again to the same backcountry trail, or aspen grove, or peak — you may have studied the slope of the valley below the Ruthie’s lift on Aspen Mountain hundreds of times, but you’ve never found it exactly the same.
That idea is what drove Monet. And it’s the mesmerizing curatorial core of the Denver museum’s unmissable show, which opened to the public Oct. 21 and runs through Feb. 2. A decade in the making, it was organized in partnership with the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany, where it will go in February. A monumental organizational undertaking, it includes works from 80 lenders in 15 countries. (It also marks the first time Monet’s “Port of Le Havre, Night Effect” has been exhibited in a U.S. museum.)
“This search to understand a place, this quest for the truth of nature — we see it throughout his career,” Angelica Daneo, the Denver Art Museum’s chief curator, explained at a press preview.
The exhibition begins with a map of “Monet’s Places,” marking where he sought inspiration, from Paris to his homes in Argenteuil and Giverny, his travels along the Seine and the Normandy coast and farther afield in Europe.
In “View from Rouelles,” a pastoral and poplar-pocked scene from 1858, we see his first known work. Monet made it at age 18, standing beside his mentor Eugene Boudin, whose painting of the same scene hangs beside Monet’s in Denver.
From there the exhibition takes viewers, mostly chronologically, on the artist’s journey through six decades of experimentation with color and light until it climaxes with a room devoted to his water lily paintings from the garden at Giverny.
Along the way, we see how he captured the city streetscapes of Paris, his studies of family life and pure joy at Argenteuil in works like “The Artist’s House at Argenteuil” from 1873, before moving into pure landscape works in the late 1870s and his serial paintings where, as Denver museum director Christoph Heinrich put it, Monet found himself “working toward a vision of nature that is more eternal.”
The survey takes us with Monet on his travels, including his dreamy studies of Venice and his eerie depictions of London fog, to the Italian Riviera and to Norway in winter.
The museum devotes an entire room to Monet’s winter scenes, including his work from the frigid winter of 1879-80, when the River Seine froze. This room alone is road trip-worthy for viewers from ski country, who will revel in the ways Monet finds worlds of color in the shades and shadows of snow, whether undulating in blankets on the ground or sloughing off tree branches or topping a haystack.
He brings similar zeal to the rocky and ferocious northern coast of France, and to the sea he himself described, with Melville-esqe passion, as “sinister as hell but quite superb.”
By the time he began painting his backyard garden in Giverny in the 1880s, his impressionism had fully landed in abstraction (Heinrich described his hazy haystacks from this period as an “inkblot test” for the viewer). The progression is most clearly curated on a single wall in the water lily room, where three paintings of his Japanese bridge sit side by side, spanning more than two decades of progression and ending with a completely abstracted version that could easily sit alongside Gorky and Pollock.
The chronological survey underscores how Monet straddled two centuries of art history, how he is both a man of the impressionist revolution of the 1860s and the man who inspired the revolutions of the American painting tradition in the 1940s and ’50s. Many of those painters, Heinrich noted, made pilgrimages to the plots of land that inspired Monet to study his methods, re-create his scenes and seek the inspiration he’d found there.
“By the end of the show he has completely arrived in the 20th century as the trailblazer to the abstract expressionists in the United States,” Henrich said.