by Sura Wood
It's difficult to picture Claude Monet as a young starving artist, little-known outside a small coterie of fellow artists, critics and collectors, but indeed, he was once just that. So how did he emerge from deprivation, sacrifice and relative obscurity to become the lauded, successful Monet so many adore? Monet: The Early Years, a new exhibition at the Legion of Honor, which covers the now-famous French Impressionist's life and nascent work from the late 1850s through the early 1870s, offers clues and more than enough gorgeous paintings to make anyone's day. While not solving the mystery of artistic genius or why it comes to fruition in some and not others, those paintings will certainly captivate visitors at what is sure to be a crowd-pleasing, heavily attended show.
This is the first exhibition to focus on a formative phase when Monet was poor, struggling and in the process of defining his style and developing a visual language regarded as radical at the time. Without a home of his own, he was often an itinerant painter, moving from France to England and the Netherlands, and finally back to France. But his affinity for landscapes, an ineffably lovely color palette coupled with the shimmering effects of light, especially its interplay with bodies of water, and intimations of the virtuosity to come are all present in many of the show's rarely seen works, produced before the artist blossomed into a full-blown Impressionist. The exhibition ends in 1872, after Monet had achieved a measure of financial comfort, and two years prior to the debut exhibition of the group with which he'll always be identified.
Monet got an early start on the road to immortality. He was only 17 when he painted his first publicly exhibited work, "View near Rouelles" (1858), a gentle rural landscape completed while he was a protégé of Eugene Boudin, from whom he learned the pleasures and advantages of painting en plein air. But it wasn't until seven years later that a pair of the neophyte's paintings was warmly received both by the Salon and the critics. One of them, on view here, "The Pointe de la Heve at Low Tide," an almost Gothic, ominously thrilling moonlit sea scene, hints at his future direction, and his innate grasp of the emotional properties of light and the forces of nature.
Only an art historian or a curator would recognize that the epic "Luncheon on the Grass" (1865-66), a response to Edouard Manet's scandalous 1862 work of the same name, is by Monet's hand. For starters, Monet's glamorous, fashionably dressed, life-sized figures, demurely picnicking in the park, are wearing substantially more clothing than Manet's. Only two immense panels from what was once a much larger canvas measuring 13'x20', survive.
Admittedly, there's something reassuring that not every work Monet created from day one was a masterpiece. Two 1867 paintings of his cherubic infant son Jean asleep in his basinet, for instance, could have been painted by any number of other artists. The same cannot be said of "The Red Kerchief" (ca. 1869), an unconventional portrait of his wife Camille. Standing outside in the snow like a character out of a Tolstoy novel, she looks longingly through the paned windows into the living room where her husband presumably sat. Monet kept this deeply personal, melancholy work close to him until his death. A similar undercurrent of sadness as well as tension runs through "Adolphe Monet Reading in a Garden" (1866), an emotionally laden portrait of his estranged father that reflects their troubled relationship. Wearing a straw boater, Monet pere is in sight but out of reach. Seated under shade trees on a bench in a public park exploding with sun-dappled flowers, he's absorbed in his newspaper, and oblivious to his son.
One can nearly feel the chill in the crisp country air as a blanket of high clouds descends in "The Magpie" (1869), a large-scale, wintry masterpiece. Framed by skeletons of bare trees whose branches are coated with icy filigree, the bird of the title, perched on a wooden gate, presides over a scene of yellow-tinged snow yielding to the lengthening, late-afternoon shadows.
The beach scenes and a gallery of seascapes are among the show's high points. In "The Green Wave" (ca. 1866-67), fishing boats mightily attempt to scale the steep, rolling waves – painted in an astonishing deep teal – as they navigate the ocean's incessant motion. Get close in and note that the artist had applied thick wet paint to the canvas, adding dimension and the impression of relentless thrust. "Seascape," from the same year, depicts the power of an unpredictable ocean whose choppy, brackish waters, whipped up by the wind, toss small crafts that register as tiny black dots on an uncertain horizon.
Painted in 1872, the year that concludes the exhibition, "Apple Trees in Blossom" is a vibrant harbinger that seems to announce the splendor of spring with a profusion of fragrant blooms, newborn greenery, and the freshness of a dazzling day, as it heralds an artist on the cusp of greatness.
Through May 29. Info: famsf.org.