Just about every year in the United States, there is at least one big exhibition of the groundbreaking, brush-stroke-revealing paintings of light and nature by French artist Claude Monet.
And just about every year, critics and audiences will ask the question: Do we need another Monet exhibition?
The answer is complicated, of course, and should dig deeper than the oft-cited reason that beauty is always needed, particularly during times of trouble, which these certainly are. It’s also true that Monet is a crowd-pleaser and brings in revenue that many museums, after a year and a half of economic damage, certainly need.
But with the arts hit hard by the global pandemic and the ongoing, increasing awareness of racist, exclusionary practices, it’s important to both support arts institutions and look critically at their programming through the lens of equity.
As a somewhat “encyclopedic” museum, SAM has been working on its diversity of voice, time period and region. Among a range of offerings, then, it’s probably fine to offer yet another show devoted to Impressionism, as long as it does something other than retell the same hero-worshipping story.
So, let’s see what we’ve got with “Monet at Étretat,” which opens July 1 at the Seattle Art Museum. It does not purport to be a sweeping blockbuster that highlights all of Monet’s artistic breakthroughs and successes. It does not, by sheer size, bluster toward self-justification.
It’s a sparely hung, tightly focused show that zeros in on the single Monet in the museum’s collection, “Fishing Boats at Étretat” (1885), that was produced during a time of self-perceived failure. It’s actually a wonderfully scumbled scene of colorful fishing boats perched on the shore waiting for the turbulent sea to calm down. But you won’t arrive at this painting until the very last gallery. You have to be patient and work for it.
Along the way are other Monets (borrowed from museums or private collections), some sterling 19th-century paintings by artists Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Berthe Morisot and others, and little bursts of fascinating ephemera (vintage postcards, photographs, books, etc.). All of this — along with ample wall text and audio guides that recite passages from Monet’s letters — firmly grounds Monet (1840-1926) in time, place and process.
When you arrive in the last gallery, SAM’s painting — “Fishing Boats at Étretat” — glows against the plum-colored walls, along with seven other Étretat paintings by Monet. It’s a glorious room, with seascapes and monumental rocks that emerged from Monet’s brush as he laid down quick strokes of the varied colors he observed in the moment.
But don’t be fooled by the beauty. In 1885, the widowed, 44-year-old Monet was struggling financially, frustrated artistically and traveling around France in search of a place that would allow him to be both marketable and expressive of his creative vision. That place was Étretat, a fishing village turned tourist destination on the north coast of France.
In other words, this is after the heady, early days of the first Impressionist shows, which gained Monet notoriety but not financial stability, and before the days of haystacks and water lilies, which secured a home (Giverny) and an income for Monet for the rest of his long life.
This is the strength of this exhibition. It expands or even contradicts the popular history of a well-known artist. We might know Monet as the painter of pretty gardens, but his visible brush strokes, unpolished paintings and ordinary subjects weren’t easily digestible at the time. It took a while for the buying public to catch up.
Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s recently retired curator of European art who conceived the show, says she hopes the exhibition will help people rediscover Monet and “acquaint us with the idea that he had of himself — that he was a worker, a painter of tough subjects.”
“Fishing Boats at Étretat” exemplifies this with its attention to the labor of fishing, a necessary task that was scuttled due to bad weather on the particular day that Monet began this painting. Monet was highly attuned to the relationship of weather and work, complaining in letters to his companion (later wife) Alice Hoschedé about rain keeping him indoors, or describing a good spot outdoors, sheltered from the wind. Once, while painting happily on the shore, he got knocked over by the rapidly incoming tide, despairing later about the danger to himself and the loss of his work.
But Monet’s challenges were often self-imposed, as if struggle was a catalyst for originality. He chose to visit Étretat in winter, away from the crowds of summertime vacationers who flocked to the seaside on the new railroad from Paris. And even when the wintry beaches held tourists, he omitted them from his paintings.
People came to the region year-round for the fresh air, the quaintness of a fishing village and the magnificent rock formations, which also lured many artists before and after Monet. The exhibition includes Courbet’s well-known “The Cliffs at Étretat” from 1866, painted almost two decades before Monet’s visit, and Corot’s almost monochromatic “The Beach, Étretat” from 1872.
Monet was familiar with the way artists and photographers typically captured these scenes, and set up a personal contest with them. While most vantage points were from the top of the cliff or down on the shore, Monet scrambled halfway up the cliffside and painted from there. He hiked across the bluffs, forged a path down to a less popular beach and painted the familiar landmarks from a new point of view. These were strategic artistic moves that referred to the established perspectives and methods, and then broke them.
Under one arm he carried multiple canvases, and his portable easel under the other, along with tubes of industrially produced paint. After setting up, he worked quickly, capturing the unique effects of the weather and time of day, clamping a new canvas to his easel as the light changed.
This sense of daily work is evoked through a “process gallery” organized by Nicholas Dorman, SAM’s chief conservator, who is seen on video explaining the technical intricacies of 19th-century painting. An entire room is populated only with the video of Dorman, a vintage easel (not Monet’s but similar), and two small paintings by Monet’s contemporaries, cleverly displayed with their backs to us, to show the kind of ready-to-use surfaces on which Monet painted.
The entire show has a precision of attention that makes it seem lean, made more so by COVID-19 precautions to spread things out. Some visitors might balk at the “special exhibition” ticket price of $29.99, but three bucks per Monet may be worth it (and there are discounted and free tickets available; check SAM’s website for details).
So, again, with all things needing to be more equal, is another big Monet exhibition essential right now? Perhaps not. But this concentrated show gives us an opportunity to slow down and rethink the easily consumable way that Monet is usually presented to the public. We might even think about Monet’s struggles in relationship to ours. His time in Étretat was a transition, born of frustration and longing. And it hints at a way forward through hard work, critical engagement with what came before, and a scrutinizing embrace of the present moment.