Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 25, 2008
James A. Ganz and Richard Kendall The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings Exh. cat. Williamstown and New Haven: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in association with Yale University Press, 2007. 328 pp.; 223 color ills.; 74 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300118629)
Exhibition schedule: Royal Academy of Arts, London, March 17–June 10, 2007; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, June 24–September 16, 2007

Astonishingly, The Unknown Monet delivers just what the title promises. Drawing upon a previously unavailable account of Monet’s life, the authors have been able to fill in many of the blanks so frustrating to modern biographers. This material not only provides a very new image of Monet, especially during the 1850s and 1860s, but it offers a new context for his drawings and pastels. The works on paper were included in the final volume of Daniel Wildenstein’s catalogue raisonné (Claude Monet: biographie et catalogue raisonné, vol. 5, Paris: La Bibliothèque des arts, 1991)—although not in the more accessible Taschen reprint (Monet, or the Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne: Taschen, 1996), but they have been treated as an afterthought in most studies of Monet’s oeuvre. A few of the caricatures he made when he was a teenager have been reproduced often, although without being connected to the rest of his work. His drawings are the subject of a section of William Seitz’s Claude Monet (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1960, ills. 64–84) and an appendix in John House’s Monet: Nature into Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986, 227–30), where House also mentions, but does not discuss, the pastels. Thus the abundance and quality of the illustrations in this book are a pleasure, with excellent color reproductions and equally high-quality black-and-white plates, mostly used for drawings, prints, and photographs. The large size of the book (about 11.75 by 9.75 inches) allows for generous sizing of the pictures, with many full-page color plates and handsome double-column page layouts. The Unknown Monet is a feast for the eye as well as a major addition to the art-historical literature.

The new biographical information used by the authors comes from an archive of personal papers kept by Comte Théophile Beguin Billecocq (5). Monet met the Billecocqs during the summer of 1853 when he was twelve and they were on an extended vacation in Ingouville. A summary of a journal kept at the time provides a detailed account of an ambitious young Monet who eagerly attached himself to the well-to-do family boarding in his home. The first surprise comes from Billecocq’s descriptions of Monet’s parents. His mother was devoted to the arts. She wrote poems, “and what’s more, they were reasonably good.” She drew and painted watercolors “with talent.” She enjoyed reading, especially work by Balzac and Lamartine. And she enjoyed entertaining, hosting informal gatherings in which she sang with a trained soprano voice, played comic roles in amateur theatricals, and received “upper Havre society,” as well as Parisians like the Billecocqs. She did all this in style:

[Mme. Monet] received visitors with elegance in . . . a room pleasantly furnished with mahogany, rosewood, and decorated with floral percalines. . . . A piano . . . formed part of the harmonious furnishings. Large pastoral landscapes of the eighteenth-century French school decorated the walls and, on the fireplace overmantel, a chased and gilded bronze clock was set between two candlesticks. A beautiful collection of Bayeux porcelain completed the decoration. (13–14)

Monet’s father also appears as a more complicated and interesting personality than the driven businessman in Monet’s telling, unsympathetic to his artist son. Passionate about geography and foreign politics, entertained by gossip about the Emperor and Parisian society, he appreciated his wife’s artistic interests and enjoyed her friends (14).

Most important for art historians is what Billecocq’s papers reveal about Monet’s beginnings as an artist. At the time of their meeting in 1853, he already loved drawing, an interest in which he was supported by both his mother and his aunt (14). After that first summer, Monet spent lengthy vacations with the family, sometimes going with Théodore Billecocq on sketching tours through venerable French landscapes such as Fontainebleau (15–16). In the summer of 1857, the Billecocqs rented Monet’s uncle’s house in Sainte-Adresse (famous from Monet’s Garden at Sainte-Adresse, Metropolitan Museum of Art, painted ten years later), and he guided the entire family around the most popular tourist sites of the Normandy coast. Beguin Billecocq described a trip they took to Étretat: “Oscar [Monet] did not neglect his drawing, realizing little refined sketches of the cliff, of Étretat, of the roads and the delightful small half-timbered farmhouses of Normandy with their thatched roofs. The drawings that he made were detailed, as precise as reality, and delicate, representing the houses, trees, people, etc., in the best possible manner” (27). Thus Monet’s later trips to these places were visits to locations he already had experienced as both a tourist and an amateur artist.

They shared other activities as well. In March 1857, for example, after the sudden death of Monet’s mother, the Billecocqs invited him to their new apartment in Paris on rue de Monceau. There, in a salon decorated with paintings by Hubert Robert, Monet entertained the assembled guests with comic performances (19). This was only one of the many times they spent together during the years before 1861, when Monet’s military service began. In later years, the family helped by buying his work. Despite this long-standing generosity, Monet eliminated them from his own accounts of his life. The authors of The Unknown Monet suggest that the relationship spoiled the rags-to-riches persona Monet had created for himself as an artist (30–31).

These accounts of Monet at work provide a new context for the assortment of more than five hundred drawings known today, making it clear that they stand for probably thousands more that were discarded or destroyed by Monet (213). Far from being anomalous, the familiar caricatures from the late 1850s turn out to be only one linear style among many that Monet had mastered. He worked as easily with the crisp lines and soft shading found in contemporary vignettes of picturesque landscapes. Other drawings show Monet learning how to construct pictures (22–23). In fact, his marvelous facility for composition, later noted by others, turns out to have been based upon these years of rigorous, self-imposed practice. As his sketchbooks used later in his career show, he never gave up the habit of noting possible subjects to paint, and experimenting with framing them in different ways (176). Even late paintings of the waterlilies and willow trees can be related to specific compositional sketches (170–171).

It is clear that by the time Monet met Eugène Boudin in the late 1850s, he was an experienced and accomplished draughtsman. This allowed him to build rapidly on the older artist’s lessons in painting, making the competence of his first exhibited landscape (View from Ruelles, on deposit, Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, Japan) in 1858 a little less surprising (59–60). It also makes the rapidity with which he learned from Johan Barthold Jongkind a few years later more understandable (84). Boudin and Jongkind were two of the most important figures in Monet’s transformation from the gifted and enthusiastic amateur leading the Billecocqs on sketching tours during the 1850s to the painter of ambitious oils exhibited in the mid-1860s. Jongkind’s influence is especially apparent in the compositions made around a strong diagonal used in the seascapes and large black-chalk drawings made along the Normandy coast in the mid-1860s (87). It also is Jongkind whose style is closest to the quick, scribbled, and looping pen lines Monet used in the drawing he made for a reproduction of Mouth of the Seine at Honfleur (Norton Simon Foundation), shown at the Salon of 1865 (188).

Although scattered in private collections and rarely exhibited today, Monet’s pastels were very visible in the nineteenth century. He signed them, sold them, and gave them away until his death in 1926. He also included seven of them (still unidentified) in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Apparently this was the last time he showed them, however, perhaps because they seemed a challenge to, or a distraction from, his work in the more ambitious medium of oil paint (117). Of the more than one hundred pastels known, about seventy-five are views of landscapes in Normandy, mostly made during the 1860s and then again during the 1880s (124). The second, better documented, group of twenty-six pastels comes from a stay in London in 1901, when the arrival of his canvases and paints was delayed (249–250).

Many nineteenth-century painters worked in pastel—among older artists, the examples of Eugène Delacroix and Jean-François Millet would be especially relevant to Monet (114–115). It was Boudin’s extraordinary images of skies and sea, however, on view in his studio and mentioned in Charles Baudelaire’s review of the Salon of 1859 that first influenced the younger artist (62–63). Monet’s pastels from the 1860s equal Boudin’s in their freedom and visual splendor. The authors suggest that the experience of working with pastel may have been formative: “his sensuous, responsive touch with the powdery sticks of color may have pioneered a more urgent fusion of seeing and art-making” (122). Certainly the dramatic calligraphic lines and the building up of areas of intense color have parallels in his use of oil paint, albeit later in his career.

In a very few cases, a pastel seems to be related directly to an oil painting of the same subject. More often, the compositions and visual interests are different, even when the site is the same. In the case of the views of Étretat from the mid-1880s, the pastels show the rocks from unfamiliar angles, as large dark forms rising against a shimmering sea and cloud-filled sky. Pencil sketches of some of the same motifs survive as well, suggesting a complicated play among the three mediums in establishing the contours, forms, and colors shown in the oil paintings (154–159).

The book concludes with two chapters about Monet’s various engagements with published reproductions of his work. Monet first made a drawing of one of his paintings for the purpose of a printed reproduction in 1865 for a supplement of Le Figaro (186–188). More interesting are the drawings he made during the 1880s, which transform the paint and color of his exhibited canvases into black-and-white lines. These show that the artist who publicly denied making drawings at all modified the compositions and invented linear substitutes for the mark-making of his brush to recreate his pictures in a different medium. In the choices he made and the ways in which he emphasized certain aspects of the paintings at the expense of others, Monet demonstrated how skilled and experienced a draughtsman he was. The results offer a fascinating interpretation of the originals (193, 195–9). Less interesting visually, although of importance to historians, are the reproductions made by others after his work (215–239).

The Unknown Monet not only presents entirely new aspects of an artist who—it seemed—could no longer hold any surprises. It also raises important questions that invite more study. Clearly the place of pastels in nineteenth-century France deserves attention. Modern historians perhaps have followed the traditional prejudices of the Academy too readily, assigning the medium a minor status, relevant to the Rococo revival and polite work by female artists. In fact, as this book demonstrates, pastels played a major role in the careers of almost all of the artists who most interest us today (114–117). For some—Edgar Degas comes to mind at once—the interplay of color and line influenced the way they handled oil paint. For others—Boudin, for example—the medium was used to create a completely different kind of imagery from their paintings. (Some of these issues may be addressed in “Pastel: The Measure of the Medium,” a CAA session at the 2009 annual meeting.)

At least as important are the reminders throughout this book that Monet was deeply engaged in the Paris art world, knew almost everyone, and participated in a great deal of the activity, even while he was living and working away from the capital. The Billecocq memoirs are especially valuable because they give detail to a time that Monet left nearly blank in his own telling of his life. Yet these are surely not the only contemporary accounts that might be revealing. It is clear that Monet was, from the very beginning, fiercely ambitious, and determined to succeed at the cost of nearly anything or anyone. He seems to have been an artist who, like J.M.W. Turner (for another nineteenth-century example), responded to any artistic challenge by attempting to best it. For this reason, one view of the history of French painting in the last third of the nineteenth century can be found woven into Monet’s work. Just as, the authors remark, Monet’s early drawings hold evidence of what he looked at and how he saw it, so his oil paintings bear similar traces of his interests. While the social and political aspects of his art have received a great deal of attention in recent years, this more traditional approach to visual works has not. For this reason too, The Unknown Monet is a welcome addition to the literature.

Marjorie Munsterberg
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Art, The City College of New York