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monet and the mediterranean

by Michael Klein  

The Villas in Bordighera

Grove of Olive Trees
in Bordighera

Cap Martin,
near Menton

The Mediterranean
(Cap d'Antibes)

Antibes Seen from
La Salis


The Doges' Palace Seen
from San Giorgio Maggiore

The Doges' Palace

San Giorgio Maggiore
by Twilight
   Like many of us, Claude Monet fled south when the weather at home became intolerable. Painting en plein air does not work well in wind, rain or snow!

"Monet and the Mediterranean," presently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, features more than 60 little-seen paintings made during the artist's major sojourns to the French and Italian Riviera in 1884 and 1888 and to Venice in 1908. Monet was understandably infatuated with his subject. This incredible body of work, in which the same views are painted repeatedly under different light conditions, shows the artist's obsession with claiming new territories for Impressionism. The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue, which draws on extensive correspondence between the artist and his wife, are the first to document both the travels and the resulting opus.

In his middle age Monet had moved to Giverny, with its famous gardens in the countryside to the northwest of Paris. He had a large family -- two children with first wife, Camille, who had died in 1879, and his second wife, Alice, had six children of her own. Despite his strong ties to Alice, Monet began to travel more extensively -- besides his vacations in Normandy, he visited London, Brittany, the Hague, Rouen, Madrid and the Riviera and Venice. Working vacations, one might call them, since the artist wasn't interested in visiting tourist spots, only in painting.

Monet's fascination with the south began in December 1883, when Renoir invited him on a trip to the Riviera. En route to the sea they visited Cézanne in L'Estaque. Once reaching the Mediterranean, their first stop was Monaco. The warm southern climate and its lush and exotic vegetation, palm trees, lianas and citrus trees were a glorious stimulant, and what Monet called, "the most beautiful spot on the entire Riviera."

Monet was so completely enchanted that he went back on his own the next month. He traveled south to Bordighera on the northwest coast of Italy, where he stayed ten weeks and painted about 35 landscapes. On his way home he stopped off for two weeks on the French Riviera, where he did another 11 works.

Four years later, in 1888, he again visited the south of France, staying in Antibes, where he painted some 40 paintings. The last of Monet's major excursions to the Mediterranean came in 1908, when the painter was in his late 60s. He spent the end of the year in Venice, where he produced 37 works. In all, Monet painted about 125 works on or near the shores of the Mediterranean.

Monet often represented the times of the day when light is at its most dramatic: sunrise, midday and sunset. In such views as Cap Martin, near Menton (1884), Monet contrasts the intense light of the southern sun burning bright on the coastal road against the deep calm blue waters of the Mediterranean. In other pictures of olive groves and olive trees he focuses on the volley between light and shadow.

Monet's pictorial style is the quintessence of Impressionism -- an investigation of the transformational properties of light. Emile Zola, the 19th-century French novelist and critic, wrote that Impressionism is a perception of the world "through a temperament." A scrupulous observer of light and color, Monet could define what he was feeling with loose brushwork and an almost infinite spectrum of hues.

The 1888 series from Antibes, done in a four-month period at the beginning of the year, includes multiple images, depicted at different times of day, of the bay, a gardener's house, an old fort and four vistas of the town seen from the same viewpoint, a spot called La Salis. The paintings are spare and saturated in color. The elements of these simple works are a group of pine trees along the shore, the town of Antibes in the distance and the backdrop of the Maritime Alps. As the light through the trees changes, so does the temperature and atmosphere of the entire scene. Monet's inventory of these effects and the colors they create is the key not only to this series, but to his entire oeuvre. Monet's paintings also have, one might note, an uncanny similarity to van Gogh's treescapes of orchards in Arles painted that very year.

Monet's 1908 trip to Venice a decade later, well into the new century, allowed him a respite from his absorbing "Water Lily" series. With Venice's mysterious canals and architectural wonders -- especially the golden Ducal Palace -- the city was quite a contrast to his studio and gardens in Giverny. The gothic architecture must have reminded the painter of his days in Rouen in 1894, when that city's cathedral became the subject of a series of stunning works.

In Venice, Monet paints images of serenity, silhouetted gondolas along the canal against the backdrop of San Giorgio Maggiore, or a pattern of shadows across the facade of Palazzo Dorio at twilight. Everything here is quiet and tranquil. Further, every material -- whether stone, glass or water -- is bathed in the most wondrous of colors, purples, greens, aquamarine-blues magentas and coral pinks.

This exhibition, like others such as "Monet in the 90s: The Series Paintings" (1989) and "Monet's Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism" (1978 ), invites the viewer to focus on a particular body of work. This period of Monet's career is one in which the exciting early battles of Impressionism have been won and the artist has turned to his individual explorations, his individual successes and failures. But within these pictures one discovers a Monet who is turning his palette to a climate that possessed the artist with what curator Joachim Pissarro calls an "ineluctable need to paint."

"Monet and the Mediterranean" opened at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, June 8-Sept. 7, 1996, and traveled to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Oct. 10, 1997-Jan. 4, 1998.

MICHAEL KLEIN is a New York dealer and curator.