Exhibition Review – Monet: Impression Sunrise at NGA Canberra
Published by: Dr Michael Adcock | Jun 21st, 2019
The National Gallery of Australia’s new exhibition – Monet: Impression Sunrise at NGA Canberra – is now open to the public from June 7 to September 1, 2019.
Featuring Claude Monet’s pioneering painting Impression, Soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) 1872, from which Impressionism takes its name, this exclusive exhibition brings together works from the impressionist master and other significant artists to examine the founding of an art movement.
Single tickets are at a cost of $22 adult, $20 concession and $17 NGA member. More details on the exhibition are available at nga.gov.au/impressionsunrise/
Dr Michael Adcock takes us through this exclusive exhibition and examines how other significant artists had an impact on the founding of an art movement and this impressionist master.
In 2014, Parisians were exhilarated to discover that the Musée Marmottan-Monet (Paris) was to offer a themed exhibition around Monet’s pioneering work, Impression Sun Rising. When the doors opened, crowds flocked to see the show, and were treated to the privilege of seeing this iconic work of the Impressionist movement situated in the context of other great landscapists, ranging from J.W.M. Turner to Monet’s first teacher, the much neglected painter, Eugène Boudin. (It was Boudin who first instructed the young Monet to stop wasting his talent doing cheap caricatural portraits of local people, and to paint the beaches and fields of Normandy). The resultant show was the dream of every art historian, because it achieved a contextualization of the famous painting – with actual paint on canvas – that could normally only be offered photographically on the pages of an art history book.
It is no less gratifying that the National Gallery of Australia should have conceived of a similar theme, and managed to assemble a superb collection of some sixty works from the Musée Marmottan-Monet and other international museums. As with other recent exhibitions, it is a matter of some pride to feel that Australian art galleries are punching well above their weight, and achieving rich, satisfying, thought-provoking exhibitions that easily rival those in the great institutions of Europe and America.
While Australian viewers will naturally be avid to view Monet’s masterpieces, they will also discover that this exhibition has several other strings to its bow. One of its greatest strengths is the attention given to the precursors of the Impressionist movement, who were legion. A substantial part of this exhibition aims not merely to provide us with visual delights, but to teach us about the long, slow process by which artists turned first to study landscape in its own right, and then to study landscape as seen in terms of atmosphere and light.
Monet did not come to paint on the coast of Normandy without prior influences. This exhibition is usefully didactic in that it reminds us that this form of maritime landscape had been developing for some time.
Joseph Wright of Derby
The exhibition opens with a wonderful touch: the curators have pushed their exploration of the origins of the study of light and atmosphere right back to the work of an intriguing painter, Joseph Wright of Derby. Known as the chronicler of the Industrial Revolution – and of Enlightenment thought – in England, he made dramatic use of cloud formations and of moonlight effects. One of his most important paintings is A View of Vesuvius from Posilippo, Naples (1788) – a rarely seen treasure from The Art Gallery of South Australia – in which he recorded the lurid red light of an eruption at Vesuvius set against the chill white light of a full moon.
The great J.W.M. Turner, for example, is represented by a splendid Le Havre. Sunset in the port (1832, Tate Gallery, London), completed some four decades before Monet’s work. Turner’s later work, Inverary Pier. Loch Fyne: Morning (c.1845) provides an extreme example of the master’s late work, in which solid forms are subsumed in a lambent yellow and gold blaze of light.
Richard Parkes Bonington and the Honfleur Group
Another important – but neglected – group is the gaggle of English watercolourists working on the Normandy coast, of whom Richard Parkes Bonington is one of the most skilled. Previously referred to – misleadingly – as ‘the Honfleur School’, they are now more accurately described as an informal artists’ group; they were no more a formal institution than the French Barbizon group was a ‘school’. Bonington’s work tends to feature less prominently on the walls of our museums, perhaps the victim of our great obsession with the mighty works of Turner and Constable. Bonington is represented in this exhibition by three watercolours, such as Harbour at Sunset, all of which demand close inspection and offer a refreshing and most delicate vision of the Normandy’s coastal landscapes.
Eugène Delacroix, the Romantic turned landscapist
In the 1850s, the French Romantic painter, Eugène Delacroix, briefly turned his back on his staple subjects – topics from English Romantic literature, and orientalist scenes based on his travels in Morocco – because he was much struck by the cliff-top view of the sea from near Dieppe. The Louvre boasts a splendid watercolour, The Sea at Dieppe (1852-1854), which may be seen as an uncanny anticipation of Impressionism; the Marmottan has sent us its own precious equivalent, Cliffs near Dieppe (1852-1855, Marmottan Museum). One needs to lean in close to this little watercolour – which actually looks unremarkable from a distance – to immerse oneself in this wild and unbridled cliff-top view of a sunset.
Gustave Courbet and James McNeill Whistler
In the 1860s, a rather unexpected figure appeared on the beaches, that of the Realist painter Gustave Courbet. We are more accustomed to his gritty scenes of peasant life in his native Ornans in the Jura region, but in 1865 he came here and worked beside James McNeill Whistler, who turned him towards seascapes of great subtlety. The exhibition contains a splendid example of this work in Low Tide at the Beach of Trouville (1865, Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth). James McNeill Whistler himself is represented here by the National Gallery’s newly-acquired Harmony in Blue and Pearl: The Sands, Dieppe (c.1885), one of the greatest purchasing coups of recent times.
It is gratifying to see that two more important French precursors are also recognized here. Both are routinely mentioned in art histories in the context of the prehistory of the Impressionist movement, and yet they are oddly underestimated. In this exhibition, they are both represented in full and satisfying detail.
The mentor: Eugène Boudin
Eugène Boudin is sometimes derided for his scenes of fashionable Second Empire society gathering on the beaches in the area. These paintings were essentially ‘painted postcards’, to be sold to summer season tourists from Paris. Boudin himself referred to these group-figure paintings slightingly as ‘mes poupées’ (‘my dollies’), but careful examination will reveal that even they are actually painted with breathtaking brio and assurance. We can better examine and appreciate one of these, On the Beach (1884, Art Gallery of New South Wales) in the exhibition. But at the same time – indeed, in the same year – Boudin was devoting himself to wonderful studies of light and atmosphere, as we see in his powerful Le Havre. Sunset at Low Tide (1884, Museum of Fine Arts, Saint-Lo). Here, he turns his back on the fashionable beaches and their posturing socialites, and devotes an unusually large canvas to his true interest, a ragged stretch of beach, peopled only by fisherfolk, with a blazing sunset low to the horizon. The sun is an incandescent orb painted with a thick impasto of paint, and it is surrounded by a yellow-orange aureole. The colloquial figures of fisherfolk and their poles for drying nets are set in contre-jour to the dramatic, blazing sunset. This is, without a doubt, the finest Boudin I have seen in my travels to date.
The master: Johan-Barthold Jongkind
The second precursor who is too-routinely mentioned, only by way of preface, but not properly appreciated for his skill, is Johan-Barthold Jongkind. It is here that the exhibition attains to great depth, assembling a truly compelling selection of his work. He was a Dutch artist who also produced seascapes and landscapes of the first order. Monet said of him, “From this moment on, he was my true master, and it is to him that I owe the final education of my eye.” Specifically, Monet observed Jongkind’s very fast, sketchy execution – consisting of an agitated telegraph of dabs and dashes – which allowed him to churn out some twenty watercolours per day. Do stop to immerse your eyes deeply in the wall of works around End of the Day in Holland (1872, Private Collection). It is still rare to see so many works by Jongkind in one place.
Monet before the ‘Impression’: On the beach
While Monet had been depicting beach scenes in and around Sainte-Adresse as early as 1868, it was not until the summer of 1870 that he followed the example of his mentor, Boudin, and introduced closer studies of fashionable vacationers on the same beaches. Monet may have been influenced also by changes in his personal life: he had married Camille Doncieux in Paris in June 1870 – possibly to avoid military service – and by late June they were on their way, with their son Jean, to a holiday in Trouville. Cultural historian Robert Herbert comments that it was rather more up-market than Sainte-Adresse, and that for Monet it had the added allure of having been the site where Courbet and Boudin had worked. Indeed, since Courbet had been involved at Monet’s marriage ceremony, he well might have waxed lyrical about his own previous painting excursions to Trouville in 1865-1866.
On the beach
Monet responded enthusiastically to this stylish holiday retreat. He painted three views of the elegant beachfront hotels and boardwalks, including L’Hotel des Roches noires (1870, Musée d’Orsay). He also executed four small canvases of his newly-wed wife Camille relaxing on the beach. The best-known example is On the Beach (1870, National Gallery, London).
The present work from the Marmottan, On the Beach at Trouville (1870) is one of the same group. Robert Herbert argues that these four sketches were probably pochades, little pocket-size sketches, in which Monet aspired to attain the painterly freedom and brio of Manet; he might have intended to paint larger, more finished versions upon his return to Paris.
In this version, Monet ensures that Camille dominates the composition, and is offset against a smaller, secondary female figure. Beyond them, we glimpse an expanse of beach where elegant vacationers stroll. Herbert correctly points out that Monet probably wanted to suggest that Camille too was a wealthy and leisured socialite, a fact quite out of kilter with this impecunious newly-married couple. They were – as Australian colloquialism would have it – “puttin’ on the dog”, or showing off.
A gorgeous pochade
Possibly even more thrilling in this exhibition is a much smaller work, Camille on the Beach, a single study in small format of an elegantly dressed Camille standing on the beach. Its existence in the Marmottan collection is well known, but I have never seen it on the walls in Paris; it is a privilege, therefore, to see it for the first time here in Canberra. The work is startling because it is – even for a pochade – extremely free and simplified, and is so vigorous that we can actually track the artist’s every gesture in the swirling application of a thick, creamy pigment. We could only get closer to the painter’s action by standing and looking over his shoulder as he worked.
The genesis of the industrial port scene
While painters had long painted seascapes and beach scenes, the idea of painting an unattractive industrial port was quite a recent one. Monet may well have seen Manet’s astonishing Port of Boulogne by Moonlight (1868-1869, shown in Adelaide in 2018) and his murky Boats at Sunset (1868, Andre Malraux National Museum of Art, Le Havre). Monet essayed this novel genre almost straight away: when he went to London in September 1870, he took himself to the Pool of London, and painted The Basin of London (1871, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff). This has all the physical elements of an industrial port, but the atmospheric effect of haze is less pronounced, and hence the generalisation of forms less extreme.
He was back in France by 1872, and was much influenced by Boudin’s atmospheric scenes of the port of his native Le Havre. In 1872, he executed two scenes of the port at sunrise. One is not so well-known: this is a closer view of the port, Sun Rising (1872, Getty Museum, Los Angeles); the other is the world-famous Impression: Sun Rising (1872, Marmottan Museum). The use of the word ‘Impression’ seems to have been a spontaneous invention. In 1897, Monet recalled that they were setting up the Impressionist exhibition, and the organisers asked him for a title. He rejected the idea of calling it a ‘view’, because the physical locale of the port was not the first priority of this painting, but the atmospheric conditions. He recalled: “I had something I had painted from my window in Le Havre: the sun in the mists and in the foreground some masts sticking up. They wanted to know its title for the catalogue [because] it could not really pass for a view of Le Havre. I replied ‘Use Impression’.” He had not, however, coined the term: for some years, artists had been using this word to indicate that an informal study was not meant to be a formal ‘view’.
Reading the paint on canvas
Henceforth, Monet’s interest was in what he called the ‘enveloppe’, or the parcel of atmosphere through which we view objects. The ships and the port are of secondary interest to the atmospheric conditions in which we see them. Of the four paintings and seven pastels submitted to what became known retrospectively as the First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1874, this canvas was the most breathtakingly minimalistic. The paint surface has great freedom and energy, due to its broken brushstrokes and heightened colour. There is no doubt that Monet was throwing down the gauntlet with a view to inciting polemic: this was the furthest extreme to which an Impressionist had yet gone in challenging the established expectations of the visual arts.
Art historian Paul Hayes Tucker offers deeper insights into the meaning that Monet himself might have attached to this work. He concedes that Monet was both celebrating contemporary modern life and studying an effect of light and atmosphere – the two staples of Impressionist painting – but he adds that the artist might well also have been celebrating the economic growth of his home town between 1850, when Le Havre was a quite insignificant port, and 1872, when it had developed into the second largest port in France. Hazy though the image might be, we can still identify the outer harbour, bustling as a large four-masted clipper ship enters. The smokestacks of other vessels alert us the impact of the Industrial Revolution on shipping. The derricks and cranes meant much more to Monet than they do to us today: they were a part of an ambitious project of extension and modernisation begun before 1870, resumed after 1871 and well under way by the time of Monet’s visit in 1872. We can even glimpse, in the distance, the chimneys of the factories that line the inner harbour.
Insights into Monet in the 1880s
This exhibition will take us well beyond the emerging Monet of the 1870s, and offer us some fresh insights into his later work. During these decades of the 1880s and 1890s, he felt compelled to strike out in search of new and stimulating landscapes, which would in due course inspire the great ‘series’ paintings which endow his oeuvre with its almost symphonic grandeur.
The journey by train from Paris to Normandy had been relatively inexpensive. As in Australia, the birth of the railways – as well as the invention of paint in tubes – had contributed enormously to the rise of the plein-air landscape movement, including the movement known as Impressionism. As the railways spread – from the 1840s onwards – regional France offered an enlarged array of landscape types and city views to artists.
Later, as Monet settled in to his water garden at Giverny and immersed himself in the reflected world of the water lily ponds, he by no means turned his back on the outside world. Curiously, it was Giverny that later allowed him to do so. He was investing massive sums buying the most rare flowers and trees, creating thereby one of the most exotic gardens in France. This investment paid off, because he began producing series of paintings which now sold well to Parisian art dealers. In addition, many tourists – wealthy Japanese and Americans – voyaged to Giverny to buy works directly from him. It was this income that later funded more ambitious trips to distant and wild or exotic places. In due course, these would facilitate commercial exhibitions around one landscape theme or ‘series’, which in turn generated further income. 
During the 1880s, Monet’s art reached its full maturity: he began to travel more widely, and to produce exceptional series of works that were strongly marked by the character of the regional landscapes he was studying. In 1882 he was painting seascapes from the cliffs of Normandy. In 1886, he was painting fields of tulips in Holland. In 1888, he was painting almost incandescent, sun-filled landscapes at Antibes on the Mediterranean coast of France.
The painting campaign in the Creuse Valley
The Canberra exhibition will provide us with the opportunity to enter into Monet’s quest for remote and wild places. Monet was introduced to the Creuse Valley by the art critic Gustave Geoffroy. The writer had met the painter when he was working on Belle-Île and, remembering Monet’s delight in the harsh landscape, thought to introduce him to a riverine landscape of comparable severity in France. The writer recalled:
“The day after our arrival, an excursion with Monet through the amazing and sombre beauty of the two Creuse Rivers. […} at the confluence of the rivers named Confolans which is one of the most strange and beautiful views one can see. Monet stopped for a long time to contemplate the low, foaming waters which flowed together over rocks, on a bed of pebbles […]”
Monet chose the most forbidding and bleak motif possible: the stark, rocky ravine of the Creuse River. In the current Canberra exhibition, the painting In the Valley of the Creuse. Evening Effect (1889, Musée Marmottan, Paris) stands out from the Creuse series by its unusually severe minimalism and power.
More than ever, the land is reduced to three interlocking forms, with the river a curving, metallic incision between them. Typically, Monet takes a plunging view down into the surface of the river, which guides our eye deep into the composition, only to arrest and baffle our gaze when it becomes enmeshed in powerful landforms. In all these paintings, the sides of the valley are typically painted in powerful strokes and quite dark colours – even when sunlight occasionally intrudes – but in the present work the gathering evening makes the landforms more than usually indistinct, an effect Monet translates with large, raw, gestural brushstrokes in cool, dark tones: dark blue, sombre green, overlaid with dark brown and scribbles of purple. It is the surface of the river that is most remarkable: apparently catching the last evening light, it is made up broad, raw, horizontal brushstrokes of similar colours, but heightened now with light blue and white. There is not even a hint here that the broken brushstrokes might mimic the broken surface of the water itself – as there is in other paintings – and the brushstrokes remain, aggressively, a strong gestural sequence of independent vigorous touches. The violent contrast between the darkening valley and the luminous water is further highlighted by the illumination of the distant hill, itself seen in contre-jour to a very luminous sky. On the hillside, arabesques of pink pigment are at play, representing fugitive effects of light.
The Impressionist Berthe Morisot
There are many other fine works in the exhibition. The Marmottan has been generous in sending some that are not linked to the landscape theme. I close by mentioning the breathtaking work by Berthe Morisot, At the Ball (1875, Marmottan Museum). As an Impressionist painter, Morisot is certainly a recognized part of the Impressionist group, and yet she may deserve greater acclaim. It is only in 2019 that a full retrospective exhibition will be held at the Orsay Museum, so she may take her proper place in the panolpy of the movement. When you view this profound study of an elegant young woman at the ball, you may have no choice but to agree.
Mapping the Monet pathway
For those who love the work of Monet, there are three great sites to visit. The first, pre-eminently, is his garden out at Giverny, which is easily visitable from Paris. The second is the Marmottan-Monet Museum, in the Paris suburb of La Muette, which contains a massive collection of hundreds of his works, as left by Claude to his son Michel and then, after his death in a bicycle accident, to the French Institute. The third is the Orangerie Museum, located in central Paris, over the river from the Orsay Museum, containing two stunning rooms with Monet’s two great cycles of waterlily paintings, presented to the French nation in 1924. In the meantime, if Paris is not accessible, just make your way to Canberra, where Paris has come to you …
Bibliography – Exhibition catalogues
Exhibition catalogue:Monet’s Impression, Sun Rising (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2019)
Exhibition catalogue:Towards Impressionism. Landscape Painting from Corot to Monet (Reims: Museum of Fine Arts, 2018)
Exhibition catalogue:Monet. Impression, Sun Rising (Paris: Musée Marmottan, 2014)
Exhibition catalogue:Spate, Virginia (et. al.). Monet and Japan (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2001).
Bibliography – Monographs
Forge, Andrew and Gordon, Robert.Monet. (New York: Abrams, 1993).
Heilbrun, Françoise.Les Paysages des Impressionistes. (Paris: Union of National Museums, 1986).
Herbert, Robert.Impressionism. Art, Leisure and Parisian Society. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
Hoog, Michael.Les Nymphéas de Claude Monet au Musée de l’Orangerie (Paris: Editions of the Union of National Museums, 1984).
King, Ross. Claude Monet and the painting of the Water Lilies (London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2016).
Moffett, Charles, (et.al.), Monet’s Years at Giverny. Beyond Impressionism (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978).
Tucker, Paul Hayes.Monet at Argenteuil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).
Tucker, Paul Hayes.Claude Monet, Life and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
Tucker, Paul Hayes.Monet in the ’90s. The Series Paintings. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1990).
 Paul Hayes Tucker, Claude Monet. Life and Art, pp. 72-74
 Tucker, Paul Hayes. Monet in the ’90s. The Series Paintings. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1990).
Dr Michael Adcock
Dr Michael Adcock is a social and cultural historian who specialises in the field of modern France. He has published works on the French Revolution with Cambridge University Press. Michael has over ten years’ experience in leading residential study tours in Paris and France. He has a strong interest in the interpretation of the arts in the context of the political and social moment in which they were created. Michael holds a Bachelor of Arts (Combined First-Class Honours in French and History), a Master of Arts (French History) and a Doctor of Philosophy (French History), all from the University of Melbourne. Michael led his first Academy Travel tour to Paris in 2006 and speaks fluent French.