In May we had visited the exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum on Impressionist France, which assembled a considerable number of art works and photographs from the 19th century into a fascinating display of art, history, nationalism, industry, nature, and other themes. It was a wonderful exhibition; we actually went through on two occasions.
In the last room, devoted to works about industry and economics, was Claude Monet’s “Railway Bridge at Argenteuil” (shown above). Many of the Impressionists, including Monet, were fascinated with the changes being wrought by industrialization. That bridge was one, but not the only one. I spent some time studying the painting, and realized that I really didn’t know much about Monet except his penchant for painting water lilies at Giverny (and a wonderful exhibit of the three works that were collectively one, which was held in 2011 and 2012 at the Cleveland, St. Louis and Kansas City art museums).
My wondering about how little I knew about Monet the man and artist found a ready solution in the art museum’s gift ship: a book. Simply entitled Monet, it was written by Carla Rachman, a lecturer on 19th century art at the University of London. It is published by Phaidon Press, which publishes a lot of books about art, artists, and related subjects (and if you go to any art museum, you’ll likely find books for sale by Phaidon Press).
I loved the book. It’s a highly readable, engaging, and fascinating account of Monet’s life and art. What Rachman presents, and it fit incredibly well with the theme of the Impressionist France exhibition at the museum, is an artist who became bound up in France’s notion of itself as a nation. Monet, for many of the French people, became synonymous with France.
Rachman walks us through the key events of his life – his family, how he came to paint, the various moves around France, his unconventional living arrangements after his first wife died, how he came to settle at Giverny, the trials and tribulations he and the other Impressionists had with the Salon (i.e., the establishment), the alternative shows, the rather daring show of the 37 paintings of haystacks, and, of course, the water lilies.
We learn of his concern that so many of his paintings were being bought by Americans and taken back to the United States (to the extent, Rachman says, that you cannot study Monet without an extended visit to America). We see that while he had periods of financial concern, he was no suffering artist, and he became a successful artist long before many of his fellow painters. We learn of his style and how it developed, and what influenced him. We even see Monet painting his first wife as she was on her deathbed.
It’s a work of insight and knowledge. Rachman knows her artist and she knows his context, and not only his artistic context. She places him in his time, in his country (and he was nothing if not a loyal Frenchman). And she explains how, in so many ways, he effectively became his country.
Monet is a wonderful biography, and more than that, a wonderful overview of the man, his art, and his time.
Navigating Monet’s Water Lilies (poem)
The artist ignores Monet (poem)
Painting: Railway Bridge at Argenteuil, oil on canvas by Claude Monet (1873), Philadelphia Museum of Art.