Exploring Monet’s Last Years

by Sura Wood

“Monet: The Late Years,” a new exhibition at the de Young Museum, focuses on the final phase of the artist’s career, from 1913 to his death in 1926.

The last chapter of French Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s life was fraught with tragedy. His second wife, Alice, died in 1911, followed three years later by the death of his eldest son, Jean. Soon after, Monet was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes.

And even from the seclusion of his beloved garden, he could hear the distant thunder of gunfire raging on the Western Front of the first World War. Monet ultimately emerged from his grief to fully reengage with painting, but both his personal world and the world around him had changed, as reflected in the artworks he would create going forward. “Monet: The Late Years,” a new exhibition at the de Young Museum, focuses on the final phase of the artist’s career, from 1913 to his death in 1926. It’s a follow-up and companion to the Fine Arts Museums’ 2017 exhibition “Monet: The Early Years,” which covered the artist’s nascent work, from the late 1850s through the early 1870s, showing how he persisted through deprivation and relative obscurity to achieve fame and success. Both shows were organized in conjunction with the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

            “The Late Years,” which includes 60 paintings and more than 20 examples of Monet’s sublime water lily canvases, offers immersion into the beauty of nature as viewed through the aging eyes of a great painter: incandescent light dancing on water and flowers, and a symphony of paradisiacal blues, lilacs and greens that filled his canvases, large and small. Known for being more consumed by color than the imagery he depicted, Monet once remarked, “Color is my day-long obsession.”

            “Visitors who have never seen works from Monet’s later years will be floored by the reinvented styles they see in the exhibition,” notes FAMSF curator Melissa Buron. “Monet’s foray into dramatic brushstrokes and intense color represent a transformed artist and redefine the master of Impressionism as one of the first forebears of modernism. These pieces also establish Monet’s continued vitality as one of the most influential painters of the early modern age, and, surprisingly, one of the most radical.”

            Arranged in several thematic sections, the exhibition sets the stage by opening with paintings from the late 1890s and early 1900s, which introduce Monet’s outdoor studio at his estate in Giverny, a village in Normandy, 45 miles from Paris. His house and gardens there were a work of art in their own right. “It is in Giverny that you should see Monet in order to know him, his character, his taste for life, his intimate nature,” wrote art critic Gustave Geffroy. “This house and this garden, it’s also a masterpiece and Monet has put all his life into creating and perfecting it.”

            With the aid of family and the occasional helper who transported materials from his studio to his garden and back, the artist, then in his late 70s and early 80s, painted both indoors and out. The sweeping expanse of his garden, from its most prominent and important feature, a luminous water lily pond, to lush roses in full bloom and the weeping willows that surrounded them, would serve as a potent inspiration throughout his career. “The Japanese Bridge” (1899), on view here, is an idyllic portrait of a teal footbridge gracefully arcing over a pond dotted with mauve lilies. Monet went to obsessive lengths to ensure the crystalline quality of the water and the vibrancy of the lilies, going so far as to require a gardener to skim the surface of the pond on a daily basis as well as dunk the lilies to remove dust that accumulated on them from nearby dirt roads. He eventually had the roads paved to protect the purity of the setting.

            A section concentrating on the period between 1914 and 1919 includes a selection of the 250 renditions of water lilies Monet painted during his lifetime. Some, executed in a two-meter format, were three to four times the surface area of previous works and marked a bold departure from his smaller pictures of similar subject matter. Evoked in deep indigos, violets and cornflower hues, they also brought into sharper focus visual elements like iris and agapanthus that until then had been relegated to the fringes.

            “The Monet water lily paintings that viewers know and love are displayed in close proximity to the later [ones], giving visitors the chance to see firsthand how his style evolved,” notes Buron.

            Not surprisingly, the heartache he endured late in his life took its toll. Once a frequent traveler, the older Monet stayed close to home, exploring new motifs, prompted by the tragedies he suffered, in easel paintings such as “Weeping Willow” (1918-1919), a mournful representation of the carnage of World War I backlit by dying afternoon sunlight.

            As he reached the end of his life, Monet produced his most radical works yet. This was due in part to his cataracts, a condition that, as it worsened, affected the tonal balance of his perception and led to an increasingly intense, almost Fauvist, color palette. Later depictions of the Japanese footbridge, painted in rust and mustard tones, have a feverish quality, as does the autumnal “Path under the Rose Arches” (1918-24). “The Artist’s House Seen from the Rose Garden” (1922-24), with its fiercely expressive, uncharacteristic crimson reds and yellows layered over blues and greens, further illustrates the artist’s transition from Impressionism to Abstraction.

            After a vast studio expansion on his property in 1916, Monet was finally able to indulge his latent ambitions as a muralist. He painted spectacular canvases, 14 to 20 feet wide, which formed a series now known as the Grandes Décorations. Immersive panoramas such as “Agapanthus” and the breathtaking “Wisteria” (1916-1919), in shades of lilac and sky blue, are displayed in the exhibition’s final galleries. Monet’s attraction to painting on an immense scale can perhaps be attributed to an acute awareness of his mortality and the desire to leave an epic work behind. He had no way of knowing at the time that his exquisite paintings would be remembered and admired a century hence.


Monet: The Late Years

Feb. 16 → May 27

De Young Museum

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., San Francisco