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For my first museum visit in the pandemic, I was looking forward to spending an afternoon with this focused exhibition. The work was sparsely hung with the requisite six-foot distance of our current era in mind, giving the viewer a considerable amount of space, although making the paintings themselves appear small on the large and imposing walls. This show was organized around a single painting, the only one by Claude Monet (1840–1926) in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM): namely, Fishing Boats at Étretat (1885). The exhibition was curated by Chiyo Ishikawa, the museum’s former deputy director of art and curator of European and American art. This was Ishikawa’s final curatorial project, concluding a thirty-year career with SAM. Through the catalog and the promotional and exhibition materials, it was clear that Ishikawa’s focus for the exhibition was Monet’s struggle to support his family. Monet’s career as a painter spanned seventy years; the period highlighted in this show came before he achieved any success or notoriety. He was still borrowing money from friends and relying on the good will of his community to survive and to raise his two children.
My initial response to hearing that SAM’s big, new summer show would be a deep dive into Monet was one of disappointment. At a time of great political upheaval and uncertainty, in the months after an especially contentious election and an ongoing national reckoning on race, every choice an institution makes is scrutinized. The decision to focus on such a well-known, white male artist feels political in and of itself. Of course, I recognize that Monet is a crowd-pleaser, likely to boost museum attendance during a moment when people are understandably hesitant about being indoors with strangers. Museum attendees have some context for the Impressionists; Monet is well within a veritable comfort zone for visitors. Since moving to Seattle from Baltimore in 2014, I have watched SAM, along with every other museum, be pushed and pulled in opposing directions. The power of representation is real, and the impact of a museum’s choices cannot be overstated. Featuring Monet feels like a balancing act, one that hopefully allows for more challenging and progressive exhibitions to follow.
Overall, this exhibition echoed the famous rainy, gray, dramatic weather of the Pacific Northwest. The landscape of Étretat itself is reminiscent of the widely known beaches along the Washington and Oregon coasts such as La Push, Ruby Beach, Kalaloch, and others, all equally dramatic and with similarly iconic jutting rock formations. Étretat was a popular destination for tourists at the time, but Monet chose to make the first of his two extended visits to the beach during the off-season, in January. Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) is considered to be the greatest influence on this subject matter, but his paintings, one of which is featured in the exhibition, are much darker and more dramatic than Monet’s. Courbet’s own Cliffs at Étretat from 1866 is featured in the first gallery, along with The Beach, Étretat (ca. 1872) by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875) and three paintings by Eugène Louis Boudin (1824–1898) that offer similar views. Monet set out to do his take on this setting differently from his heroes and contemporaries by stepping away from what his audience might have expected and focusing on fishing boats and the color they bring to this landscape.
The low lighting and gray and deep purple walls made the space itself fairly dark, creating an intimate engagement with these smaller yet still monumental works. This recreated the atmosphere of a history museum, contrasting with the brighter, more modern exhibitions I usually expect to see in this section of the building. One of the more charming and interactive aspects of the exhibit was a smartphone tour that was easily experienced through personal devices and headphones. This guided tour allowed us to hear excerpts from letters Monet wrote to his companion, Alice Hoschedé, relating to individual works and highlighting moments from his process. A particularly memorable recording has Monet recalling almost drowning while working. The tides commanded his schedule, and once, while completely absorbed in painting, a wave overtook him and he nearly drowned. He recalls getting paint in his beard and losing both his painting and easel. These personal touches and the relative ease of their accessibility added another dimension to the overall experience of the exhibition.
The different types of interactive technology created a multidimensional approach to audience participation. Through advances in X-ray technology, we have learned a lot more about Monet’s process. The exhibition itself focused heavily on how the work was made, and how Monet’s approach was both similar to and different from that of his contemporaries. Monet’s method is complex: it would be virtually impossible to recreate a Monet. The controlled chaos of his mark making and the buildup of his surfaces is unique to his hand and part of the appeal for the audience—along with his relationship to color and dogged pursuit of light as its own subject.
Overall, there was a heavily pedagogical approach to the curation of this exhibition. Part of that approach was the inclusion of a recorded demonstration by a SAM conservator on how Monet developed his color palette. This brief overview of Monet’s color-mixing process served almost as an instructional video, something that drew attendees in. This related to the pragmatic nature of the Impressionists, an overall focus of the exhibition. We are able to see evidence of Monet’s thought process and a balance of both his practical choices and his romantic visions of what painting can be. He is well known for a balance of color temperatures, placing warm and cool colors next to each other and increasing our sense of saturation and complexity, something the conservation video highlighted. The show itself includes some technical innovations that enabled this practicality, including the portable easel, the metal collapsible tube (as opposed to small animal bladders for transporting paint), and premade painting panels that allowed artists to move through the landscape freely, painting from life and bringing studies back into the studio to make alterations later. Through these innovations in technology, the exhibition highlighted the parts of his compositions that Monet added in later, long after the first painting sessions were dry.
Also featured in the exhibition is the work of photographer Christoph Imgang, who did a side-by-side comparison of the composition in Monet’s paintings with the sites themselves. He was able to show how close to life Monet’s work was, that he was not improving on nature, just painting what he saw, as he saw it. This close study of Monet’s approach informs us of the roots of his most famous works, and what he is ultimately best known for: repetition. Monet’s despair at not being able to recapture his initial sense of place led him to paint the same subject matter over and over again. He fancied himself almost a blue-collar worker in his method, similar to the fisherman whose boats he studied, going back out to sea again and again.
Paired with the exhibition is a comprehensive catalog, written by Ishikawa. The catalog is structured as an intimate narrative about the journey Monet took to develop this work, and what it ultimately led to. The writing is well researched and reveals an expansive knowledge of Monet’s career and personal life. It provides an in-depth look at the particular circumstances of Monet’s personal life at this moment in time, giving the reader a chance to peer into his mindset and his labors through transcriptions of his letters to companion Hoschedé. These letters read as the mildly obnoxious complaints of an artist fighting to balance his work and family life. As fans of Monet’s work, we gain almost too much insight into how he felt while struggling through this early period in his career.
Overall, the exhibition drives home the significance of Monet’s earlier work and what it led to: his haystacks, his water lilies, his paintings of the Rouen Cathedral at all times of the day. The show’s emphasis on the early difficulties in his career feels like a lesson, a didactic approach used to provide new insights by digging a little deeper into what we already know about this popular artist. The curator was able to bring eleven additional works by Monet to the show, filling the final gallery—an impressive feat.
The humanizing nature of the exhibition and intimate moments with the artist feel especially poignant during a global pandemic. For the most part, we have spent a year or more in isolation, staying away from family and friends, figuring out ways that reclusive time could be spent productively. Ishikawa’s curatorial vision mimics Monet’s process and reflects back to us the time we are living in. By organizing an entire exhibition around one single painting, she harnesses his method of repetition and discovery.
Visual Art Studies, The Evergreen State College