Reflections in the Water, Reflections of Oneself

‘Monet and the Seine: Impressions of a River’ at MFAH

“Monet is just an eye, but good God, what an eye!” — Paul Cézanne

The pale sky has barely acknowledged the arrival of the new dawn when a strange-looking boat noiselessly pushed away from the shore and drifted into the middle of the river. It carried a small wooden cabin on its deck, so the boat looked like a floating house. The cabin could open on both sides to provide an unobstructed view up or down the stream. If a visitor were permitted to come aboard, he would find there unusual tackle: an easel, palettes, brushes and paints…. The owner of this boat was not an avid fisherman, but an artist, Claude Monet.

Sunlit gardens, water lilies, haystacks and the Rouen Cathedral — these are some of the famous images that the name of the celebrated Impressionist master evokes in our memory. Monet lived a long life — 86 years, and his creative output was overwhelming. The exhibition at MFAH takes a close look at one aspect of his art — his obsession with the river Seine.

The exhibition features 52 paintings which came to Houston from all over the world. Every one of them has been carefully selected as a milestone in the artist’s journey — in time, space and artistic achievement. From the busy river port of Argenteuil on the outskirts of Paris, to the quaint village of Vétheuil and, finally, to the tranquility of Giverny, each painting may be regarded as a Monet self-portrait as he matured as a man and an artist.

Claude Monet, “The Boat Studio,” 1876, oil on canvas, The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania.

The Seine was more than a subject of his artistic inquiry. It was his first love, his muse, his teacher. As he spent day after day on the river capturing its changing appearance — at different times of day, weather and season — Monet was turning into the great artist that we know today.

How did it all start? Coming from a family that was involved in a boating business, young Claude was intimately familiar with life on the river. He spent his days on the water even before he knew that he wanted to be an artist. So it is hardly surprising that in his early works, like Ships Riding on the Seine at Rouen (1872-1873), he recorded the images he saw every day — the rigging of ships in a busy harbor and the way water is refracting and reflecting the ships and the sky.

In this work Monet is still searching for his own voice. His palette is not as bright, the objects are more solid and the brushstrokes are more controlled than what we usually expect to see in his works. Yet he is already using the composition which would later become his signature style. He divides the canvas into two almost equal parts, so the expanse of water in the lower half encompasses the full reflection of the boats, the shore and the sky. As time went on, the implied line midway across the canvas, be it a shoreline or a horizon, would become an axis along which the painting may, literally, be rotated and turned upside down without losing the integrity of the image.

Claude Monet, “Ships Riding on the Seine at Rouen,” 1872/1873, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

Monet’s friendship with Eugène Boudin, the famous landscapist of an earlier generation, played an important role in shaping his artistic vision and technique. They met in 1857 when Monet was only 18 and Boudin persuaded his young friend to give up his caricature drawings and to become a landscape painter. It was Boudin who encouraged Monet to paint, not just sketch, en plein air instead of doing the major work in the studio, which had been the established practice for centuries.

Monet took the advice of his older colleague to heart and equipped himself with a studio boat which allowed him to paint the river directly from observation as he moored himself at a chosen spot. While he was not the only one who had a “floatable studio,” he certainly used this advantage to the fullest.

“The Church at Vétheuil” (1879) represents Monet at the breakthrough point of his career. The canvas is scintillating with brilliant color applied in small brushstrokes in a mosaic-like fashion. The Gothic church and the red-roofed houses clustered around its ancient walls look as if they are infused with sunshine, their materiality almost dissolved by light and air. Their reflection in the water appears to be in constant motion, now coming together, now breaking apart.

The painting seems to be announcing, loud and clear: “The age of Impressionism has arrived!” The term was coined only a few years earlier, in 1874, by critic Louis Leroy. Reviewing the exhibition of Monet and his friends at the studio of the photographer Nadar, he derisively referred to the group as “impressionists,” picking on the title of Monet’s painting “Impression, Sunrise.” Leroy declared that “wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.” However, neither scathing reviews, nor lethargic public response impeded the progress of the new art movement.

Looking at this happy landscape it is hard to imagine that Monet was entering the darkest span of his life. Financially destitute, he could barely care for his family. In September of 1879 his wife Camille died and Monet plunged into the depths of despair. Things got so bad that, after being evicted in the middle of the night, the despondent artist threw himself into the river wishing to end his misery. However, he was too good a swimmer to perish among the waves….

A few months later, the river led him to a new discovery which eventually broke his bad luck spell. During the cold winter of 1879-1880, Monet witnessed a rare natural phenomenon, known as ‘La débacle,’ or the breaking of the ice. After deadly December frosts, a thaw set in on Jan. 5. In the morning the artist woke up to the loud cracking noise. The Seine was covered with floating plates of ice that rustled as they rubbed against each other on their way down the stream. This eerie parade continued for several days allowing Monet to create a series of paintings on the subject, the first one in which he explored the same motif at different times of the day.

“The Ice Floes (Les Glaçons)” (1880) exemplifies the artist’s fascination with this unusual scene. The pale pink palette conveys the sense of warmth and gaiety that contradicts our mental image of the river in winter. Monet challenges the viewer to set aside preconceived notions and to open our eyes to the world around us. The ice floes on the mirror-like surface of the river look so much like the wispy clouds on the pale winter sky that the land and the sky seem to be interchangeable.

“Morning on the Seine” by Claude Monet

In the following years, Monet fully realized the potential of recording the same image under the changing light. The exhibition at MFAH brings together for the first time the famous series “Mornings on the Seine” which the artist created in 1896-1897 and exhibited at Galerie Georges Petit in 1898. These paintings were a culmination of Monet’s interest in the river. Light, mist, interplay of shadows on the water as the day is slowly emerging from the pre-dawn dusk — these are his main artistic concerns. The colors are muted and the shapes are indistinct and soft around the edges which makes them look like Rorschach stains. These images seem to belong simultaneously to the visible world and to the realm of abstraction.

By then the artist had been living comfortably in the picturesque village of Giverny. As the new century dawned upon his lovely house and luscious garden, Monet’s romance with the Seine came to an end. It has been suggested that he turned to painting his garden to escape from American fans who followed him wherever he went wishing to learn from the master. However, it also may be that the relationship between the artist and the muse of his youth had run its course. Like any meaningful relationship, it left an indelible mark on Monet’s sensibilities and shaped him as an artist. It is hardly an accident that lily pads in his celebrated late paintings bear a resemblance to the ice floats from ‘La débacle’ series.

The exhibition “Monet and the Seine: Impressions of a River” will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through Feb. 1.

Story by Elena Ivanova, ISSUE Staff Writer