copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
19 May 2007
The exhibition The Unknown Monet at the Royal
Academy, enthusiastically received in these pages by AS Byatt
on its opening two months ago, doesn't close till June 10. When
I dropped in the other day, it was by no means crowded. Impressionist
shows are supposed to be the bread and butter of today's galleries,
but this one really is a landmark exhibition, and the research
that went into it alters your sense of the painter. It tells
you something new about how he became what he became.
You might think it would by now be impossible
to say anything new about the impressionists. Surely all their
works have long since been catalogued, and surely all the information
has been marshalled and all the anecdotes are in? Surely all
the social history has been sketched out? What could remain
to be done?
The answer is that there are all kinds of lacunae
in our knowledge of the major painters, and all kinds of basic
work remains to be done. It would be nice, for instance, to
have an up-to-date and authoritative catalogue of Degas's drawings.
It would be even nicer (I have irritating daydreams about this)
to find Degas's missing notebooks covering his trip to New Orleans.
It seems as if some luggage on his American trip went astray.
Who knows? It might turn up.
This business about luggage turning up is topical:
in the Royal Academy show there is a series of pastels that
Monet executed in London, staying at the Savoy and waiting for
the bags containing his painting equipment to arrive. Included
in the series is an image called Waterloo Bridge, Fog, in which
one is hard put to discern or interpret any outline at all.
This aspect of Monet's work is very little known - many of the
pastels remain in private collections - and must have needed
patience to track down.
One thing that did turn up, in the course of
preparing the catalogue, was the full text of a source that
had only been partially used before, the journal of Comte Théophile
Beguin Billecocq, a cultivated friend of the arts who wrote
up an account of his life using diaries that have since disappeared.
His family knew the Monet household in Le Havre, which apparently
served as a sort of bed and breakfast place for tourists from
There must be a great deal of social nuance
here that would need fleshing out before one could fully understand
the relationship between Monet and his first patrons, and why
he rather edited them out of the story in his own accounts of
his life. Monet liked to present himself as the rebellious son
of philistine parents, who made his way in the world, in adolescence,
by drawing caricatures for money.
But the new information presented by James
A Ganz and Richard Kendall shows that, while there were indeed
tensions between father and son, the women of the Monet family
were artistic and talented, wrote poetry, played music and acted
in comedies. Monet himself would join in such amateur theatricals
and music-making (he had a tenor voice). But like many children
he found a home-away-from-home, in this case with the Billecocq
family, who took him on sketching trips, encouraged and collected
his early work, and no doubt offered for him Larkin's fabled
place where he could "be himself".
When Ganz and Kendall were allowed to look
at the Billecocq archive, they found works that would appear
to be by the young Monet - in those days known by the name Oscar
- but about which they are cautious. They are always cautious
with the evidence. It is a very attractive trait in their scholarship
(especially as they have managed to turn up so much new evidence).
They are always asking just how we know something, and whether
the thing we know is known to us because it derives from Monet's
talent for self-presentation in later life.
Reading between the lines, it seems that there
is a break in Monet's personal life after his brief military
service in Algeria with the Zouaves. Before this time he was
Oscar Monet. But his fellows teased him about this name, which
had some unspecified bad associations (this was decades before
the Wilde case). So he changed to his other name, Claude. His
friend and patron Billecocq noted that, on his return from Algiers,
he "had become a man, excitedly affirming that he wished
to become a painter acknowledged and recognised by everyone".
Perhaps this was when he began the process of saying goodbye
A story is told of Monet's dealer, in later
years, being offered a canvas signed "Monet" showing
an Algerian scene with camels. At first Monet disowned it, saying
"I've never done any camels." Then he relented and
apparently proposed keeping it in exchange for another picture.
It sounds, from this snippet, as if, having been forced to recognise
the work as his own, he couldn't wait to get it home and destroy
It's not that there is anything sinister being
suppressed in this process of self-shaping (and every artist
has the right to destroy his works, as long as they belong to
him); it's more a matter of trying to recover what has been
edited out of the picture. For our interests in these matters
are not the same as those of the artist.
When asking about Monet and drawing (the chief
subject of the exhibition and its catalogue), we want to know
what the drawings tell us, not necessarily what Monet tells
us (although that, too, has its place). It is a subject that
has been treated extensively only once before, and that is in
a volume of an immensely expensive catalogue by Daniel Wildenstein.
Clearly, though, there are aspects of Wildenstein's work that
are already out of date. Ganz and Kendall give us new things
to think about - the art that Monet grew up with as a child,
the graphic art in the mass media of his day, various techniques
of print-making that have long since passed out of vogue - and
rare objects to see. The show will move on to the Clark Art
Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It is exemplary.