Monet: The Early Years

Michael Raffety


An art museum can never go wrong putting on a show featuring more than 55 paintings by Claude Monet.

The paintings on display at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco now through May 29 is the first of its kind by concentrating on his early years from 1858 to 1872. The latter is two years before the first Impressionist Exhibition.

Monet was 24 when he sent his first painting to the Paris Salon and it was accepted.

“By age 31 he was famous to a very small group,” said Max Hollein, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The year 1872 is also when Monet completed the painting of the port of Le Havre called “Impression Sunrise.” Entered in the 1874 Impressionists Exhibit, it was ridiculed by an art critic as “impressionism,” but the sobriquet turned out to be a boon for Monet’s paintings.

This exhibit shows how he progressed from a standard scenic painter at age 18 to paintings more recognizable as having impressionist elements that were uniquely his by the age of 32. With the advent of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which included the siege of Paris, Monet decamped to England, where he continued to paint, including a side trip to Holland before it was safe to return to Paris.

“We believe Monet: The Early Years will be a revelation to our visitors, even to those who think they know Monet well,” wrote Hollhein.

This exhibit of these early Monet paintings was collected from museums and private collections around the world and was organized by George Shackelford of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. In 2019 Shackelford will mount an exhibit of the last 10 years of Monet’s life when the artist reinvents himself. Shackelford will work with Jim Gantz, curator of the Achenbach print collection at the Legion of Honor.

“The paintings from Monet’s early career are profoundly daring and surprising,” said Esther Bell, Curator in Charge of European Paintings at the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco. “You see his mastery of light and texture everywhere -– in his depictions of large and small moments, with friends and loved ones, in the solitude of forests and fields and in the quiet scenes of everyday life. Every stroke commands our attention.”

This is Bell’s last exhibit in San Francisco. She is taking the position of senior curator at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.

While Monet was in London he established a relationship with art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who mounted exhibits of French painters and especially Monet, who continued to exhibit with him in London after Monet returned to France in 1872 and continued that through 1874.

The year 1872 was the artistic tipping point for Monet. Ten years later was his last group exhibit with the Impressionists. Thereafter he exhibited on his own and had won financial independence through his paintings.


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