Claude Monet’s timeless, contemplative canvases continue to captivate audiences around the world nearly 100 years after the artist’s death. He left an indelible mark on art history with his pioneering style and role in shaping the Impressionist movement, which took its name from the debut of his seminal 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise. Recent presentations of Monet’s work at the Denver Art Museum and the One Art Museum in Shanghai have drawn international attention, and in 2019 Sotheby’s set a new record for the artist with the $110.7 million sale of his Meules (1890). ARTnews asked five curators to each select a significant work by Monet and discuss its importance—art historically and personally. Their responses follow below.
Chief curator and curator of European art before 1900, Denver Art Museum
The Path in the Wheat Fields at Pourville is one of my favorite paintings by the artist in the Denver Art Museum collection. We recognize the site of Pourville thanks to the distinctive white cliffs to the left, and yet a simple path dominates the scene. It takes over almost the entire lower half of the painting, accentuating with its gentle curve the intersecting lines of the beach, sea, and ground, resulting in a picture that is simple in details and highly sophisticated in composition. What I find remarkable in this work is Monet’s ability to integrate every element to create a scene of balanced, timeless harmony and convey all the spontaneity of a captured moment in time. His second wife Alice Hoschedé characterized her husband as one “who leaves nothing to chance,” a trait that seems at odds with the artist’s famed ability to capture a fleeting moment. Yet, we need only look at this compelling example of Monet’s work to see that, for this artist, thoughtful intentionality was essential to effectively depict immediacy.
Chair and curator of painting and sculpture of Europe, Art Institute of Chicago
In the gallery of Monet’s iconic series of haystacks and numerous canvases inspired by his water lily pond at Giverny, I find this canvas the most breathtaking, precisely because it does not call attention to itself. There’s something magical about the subject of pre-dawn mist, inviting my strong emotional response even as it calms and equilibrizes me. Perhaps it is the reversibility of the image, where the reflected and reflection are indistinguishable. Or the seemingly breathed-on surface of lavenders, pinks, and opalescent blues, that (from technical analysis), I know are actually the result of multiple super-imposed layers. I find my eye plunging into the blurry zones of color, suggesting overhanging branches, river, and sky, which seem to move behind and in front of each other and then flatten out into a tie-dyed silken surface. For me, the painting is as intimate, self-reflective, and noiseless as the site must have seemed when Monet approached it in his flat-bottomed boat. And that is probably why I return to it again and again for its visual enchantment and feeling of absolute quietude and sincerity.
[Read about how Monet rose to fame and helped shape the Impressionist movement.]
Chief curator, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
For a few years in the 1870s, Monet and his family rented a house near the river in Argenteuil, but he soon realized that he wanted to make paintings from the water. He purchased an old fishing boat and converted it into a floating studio. This view shows the back of the boat, and the central cabin where he kept his supplies. To paint, he would sit at the front of the vessel, a spot that is obscured in this scene. The figure in the center—shown only in silhouette—is a self-portrait of Monet himself. From his mid-river viewpoint, the artist was perfectly placed to capture the fleeting moment. Rapid brushstrokes describe the broken reflections on the water and the abundant greenery that spills down from the banks. This work is special because it not only conveys that first-hand experience of nature, it also records Monet’s novel working practice.
Curator of 19th-century European painting, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Monet made his mark in the Paris art world of the 1860s with vibrant scenes of modern life that were destined not only to attract but also to sustain our interest: witness the perennially-eye catching Garden at Sainte-Adresse, which holds pride of place at the Met. In an all-out bid to win back the parental support he desperately needed to stay afloat, the prodigal son returned to the Normandy coast in the summer of 1867, and in a command performance of sorts, fashioned this stunning demonstration piece, enlisting family members—notably his father (shown seated, in a panama hat)—as models. With authenticity and authority, the 27 year-old artist captured the “look of the moment,” down to the embroidered hemlines of the white crinoline frocks, while also ensuring an image of timeless allure that elevated the here-and-now to a whole new level. Looking back at age 80, Monet still marveled at the “daring” conception that holds sway. The Japonist bird’s eye viewpoint and French tricolore flag emphasize the flat surface of the canvas, which unfolds in three distinct bands of high-keyed color: terrace, sea, and sky, like signposts of the Impressionist landscapes to come.
Curator of European painting and sculpture and curator of the John G. Johnson Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art
While working from home, one of the paintings I miss seeing on daily walks through the museum’s newly reinstalled 19th-century galleries is Monet’s Path on the Island of Saint Martin, Vétheuil. I suspect that the narrow island, located in the River Seine between Lavacourt and Vétheuil, offered Monet a respite from the financial and personal woes that marked the years following the death of his first wife Camille in 1879. Turning his back on the barges that regularly passed the island on their way to and from Paris, Monet omits the human activity around him, leaving only a footpath meandering across a meadow and a medieval church in the distance. He presents us with a summer day: grasses dancing in the breeze, pockets of cool shade, and heat blurring the distant hills. Despite the promise of depth offered by the vertically-oriented canvas, an exuberant web of delicate, rhythmic brushstrokes brings us back to the painting’s surface and reminds us of the artist’s skillful hand at work.