Monet: The Late Years
The Kimbell Art Museum
Renzo Piano Pavilion
3333 Camp Bowie Blvd.
June 16 through Sept. 15
Exhibit admission: $18 for adults, $16 for seniors and students, $14 for ages 6–11 and free for children under 6; half-price on Tuesdays and after 5 p.m. on Fridays
General admission: free to view the museum’s permanent collection
Monet: The Late Years
Curated by George T. M. Shackelford
deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum
The exhibition is organized by the Kimbell Art Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with the support of the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris.
It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities and a grant from the Leo Potishman Foundation, JP Morgan Chase, trustee. Promotional support is provided by American Airlines, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and NBC5. The acquisition of an antique frame for the Kimbell’s Weeping Willow was made possible by a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.
No one really knows what was in the mind of Claude Monet in the period between about 1909 and 1914 when the artist stopped painting.
“He was in really a foul mood. A blue funk, basically,” says George T. M. Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum and one of the foremost experts on 19th-century French art.
Monet’s wife died in 1911 and one son was sick and eventually died in the spring of 1914.
“He’s very depressed,” Shackelford said. “And then out of the blue, he latches onto this old idea that he had had, of taking the water lilies as a subject and turning them into a kind of, you could even call it a cycle, of paintings that were going to be on a monumental mural scale.”
And that’s the focus of Monet: The Late Years, the first museum exhibition in more than 20 years dedicated to the final phase of Monet’s career.
With about 50 paintings, the exhibition traces Monet’s work from 1914, through a reinvention of his painting style leading to larger abstract works, to his death in 1926.
The shows runs June 16 through Sept. 15 at the Kimbell’s Renzo Piano Pavilion. Earlier works are included as well, so the visitor can see the contrast between the paintings of Monet’s earlier years and those in his later years.
“To gear up for it, he starts increasing the size of his canvases, and everything gets bigger,” Shackelford said. “The brushes get bigger, the amount of paint that he uses is larger of course, because you literally physically have to cover that much more surface.
“The breadth of the stroke and the motion gets bigger because he’s not painting things in any kind of little detail anymore, he’s just giving you the big idea.”
Glancing around one room of the exhibition during the installation, he gestures to a painting.
“Looking around you where we’re sitting, you can see that a water lily pad might be made out of three or four giant brush strokes, and then that’s it. That’s all he needed,” Shackelford said.
The show is a companion to an earlier exhibition. In 2016 and 2017, the Kimbell and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco presented Monet: The Early Years, more than 50 paintings that surveyed the artist’s work from a picture exhibited in 1858 – when he was 17 – to a group of paintings from the summer of 1872 – when he was 31.
“With this show, apart from a little preamble in the exhibition that kind of helps you get yourself primed up and started and ready to look at the main event, we pick him up when he is 73 and take him to the end of his life. He dies at age 86,” Shackelford said.
The dating of the paintings in this exhibition is problematic.
One is dated in 1915 because there is a picture of Monet painting it. But Monet didn’t date the paintings. Several were sold in 1919, so experts know that they were finished by then.
“But a lot of the others, we’re doing guesswork to say, ‘Well, this one looks like it might be a little bit later.’ But it’s really risky to say that because something looks a little bit more bold that it had to be after the one that looks a little bit more conservative,” Shackelford said.
Dates were immaterial to Monet. There are examples in the exhibit of how he would revisit and rework paintings, sometimes over a long span of time.
“It’s really only when he is cajoled into selling something that he figures, ‘Well, I’ve got to put a date on this.’ And then sometimes I think it’s the date that he’s selling it, not necessarily the date that he’d begun it. Or it could be that it’s the date that he started thinking about it, rather than the date that he last stopped touching it,” Shackelford said.
“But what isn’t approximative is the overall cumulative effect, which is that these are paintings about excitement.”
Unknown is the impact of World War I on the mind of the artist.
Monet became re-excited about painting in May and June of 1914, and the war began in August. Both his second son and a stepson were in the army – both survived – and family members and others were moving away from Paris to areas less likely for German occupation.
“Monet says, ‘I’m not going anyplace. I’m going to keep painting.’ And while he’s in the garden painting, you can hear Big Bertha [firing] 40 miles away on the other side of Paris,” Shackelford said. “And so he is able to keep going, amazingly.”
The paintings in this phase are all centered on his garden – at this point of his life in his 70s, he basically didn’t go anyplace else to paint.
“He paints exclusively mostly around the pond, where the water lilies are growing in the southern end of his two-part garden,” Shackelford said. “Most of the paintings in this show are around that pond where he has planted water lilies in the 1890s, and where he just makes it better and better all the time.”
Monet launched into the large format, eventually painting pictures that are more than 6 feet tall and 14 feet wide.
“It’s interesting that once he finds out that he is prepared to start painting again, it does become I think the equivalent of a great drug for him, because the painting itself is so exciting,” Shackelford said.
Monet wrote to people to tell them not to visit because he was working hard and didn’t want to interrupt the process with guests, saying he couldn’t believe it had taken so long and that he was really excited about this phase of his painting.
“And this is what he’s writing in the summer of 1914. And it just keeps going,” Shackelford said.
Monet was about 5 feet 7 inches tall.
“These paintings are a foot taller than he is when he’s painting them,” Shackelford said.
Monet would paint by the pond in his garden with helpers carrying the paintings back and forth from the studio down to the pond, a couple hundred yards away.
“But then they come back up into [his] big studio, where they then become the evidence of what he saw, on site. And from them, he paints pictures that are too big to transport down,” Shackelford said.
The idea for the exhibition surfaced at a lunch in 2014 with Eric M. Lee, the Kimbell’s director, around the Kimbell’s Weeping Willow painting by Monet.
Shackelford said he pointed out that the museum owned works that Monet painted when he was 78 and one painted when he was 24. And the idea of two exhibitions – Monet: The Early Years followed by Monet: The Late Years – was launched.
This article includes material from Kimbell Art Museum news releases