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Making art history: Kimbell brings early Monet

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“Monet: The Early Years” runs through Jan. 29

Kimbell Art Museum

3333 Camp Bowie Blvd.

Fort Worth 76107

817-332-8451

www.kimbellart.org

Special admission for this exhibit is $18 for adults; $16 for ages 60 and over and for students with ID; $14 for ages 6-11; and free for museum members and children younger than 6. Tickets are half-price Tuesdays and after 5 p.m. Fridays.

FORT WORTH — The Kimbell Art Museum is once again treating us to an exhibition on one of the biggest names in art history. “Monet: The Early Years” is a portrait of the artist as a young man, the first exhibit devoted to the early career of Claude Monet (1840-1926), and a coup for the museum.

The exhibition was organized by the Kimbell in partnership with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where it will be seen next year. The curator was George T. M. Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell and an expert on French art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who also organized the recent Gustave Caillebotte exhibit.

The idea for “Monet: The Early Years” was hatched in the Buffet Restaurant at the Kimbell over a lunch between Shackelford and Eric M. Lee, the museum’s director. They dreamed about exhibits inspired by the earliest Monet in the Kimbell collection, Pointe de la Heve (1865), and the latest. Shackelford said at a press preview event Oct. 13 that the museum will take a look at Monet in his 70s and 80s in a couple of years.

The current show is an in-depth look at the artist from ages 17 to 31, starting with his first known painting, the landscape View Near Roulles (1858). “Fundamentally, it’s about Monet in his 20s,” Shackelford said.

A few pieces in the show have never been seen in the U.S. Many are from private collections and have rarely been exhibited anywhere. Even scholars of Monet or French painting are expected to have new experiences here. “This whole exhibition is primarily about providing opportunities for studying paintings that many of us have never seen before,” Shackelford said. “These last two weeks, seeing these works come out of traveling crates, I’ve been almost as happy as I’ve ever been as a curator.”

“Monet: The Early Years” is organized in a rough chronology, with many paintings grouped by subject or by the setting in which they were painted (Paris, Holland, a Normandy beach town, cloudy London).

There are no water lilies or haystacks — those would come later. And the palette, overall, is relatively somber. But it’s fascinating to watch as the young Monet develops his preoccupations with light, with painting water, and eventually with small, glancing brushstrokes.

That first painting, View Near Roulles (1858), hangs near the Kimbell’s Pointe de la Heve, young Monet’s first submission to the all-important annual exhibit called the Salon. (Throughout the show, wall text explains how Monet faced severe poverty and struggle — his works were often rejected by the Salon.) In the next gallery is a fragment of the monumental, unfinished picnic scene Luncheon on the Grass (1865-66), which was to have been 13 by 20 feet. The two panels here are still quite imposing.

There are groupings of seascapes, some of them showing the young artist’s experimentation; intimate family portraits of Monet’s wife and infant son; and still lifes, including a well-known scene of flowers that he arranged and painted along with his friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who also used it to create a well-known canvas.

One corner features three of Monet’s early architectural paintings (many fans may think of his later Rouen Cathedral series). For these, he got permission to use the Louvre as a platform for looking out onto Paris. These works are on loan from museums in Berlin, the Netherlands and Oberlin, Ohio. “To bring them together is one of the accomplishments of our show,” says Shackelford.

As elsewhere, you can hints of things to come. Shackelford pointed out how in one city scene the tiny people are rendered clearly enough that you know details of their clothing choices. In the next painting, executed maybe a few weeks later, the people have become mere little black strokes of paint. That lack of specificity was a significant breakthrough, the curator said.

There are glorious landscapes, of course, such as the snowy winter scene The Magpie, one of Monet’s best-known paintings and by one measure the most popular work in the Musee d’Orsay, its home: It’s that museum’s top-selling postcard. It was rejected by the Salon in 1869, but Shackelford counts it one of Monet’s most beautiful scenes and one of the great achievements of his career, with its many subtle variations on the color white.

Beach scenes such as Camille on the Beach at Trouville (c. 1870), depicting Monet’s wife in a voluminous Victorian gown with a parasol, and other waterside views such as the famous La Grenouillere (1869) or Regatta at Argenteuil (c. 1872) will please impressionism fans.

The final gallery takes us up to 1872. Late that year, Monet would paint a canvas (not included here) to which he casually gave the title “Impression,” giving a name to the art movement he would help define.

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