Monet: The Late Years is currently on view at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, following a successful run at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, where I recently had the chance to see it.

If I had to describe the exhibition in one word, it would be “ravishing.” To say that the paintings are beautiful would be an understatement. There are fifty-two of them from collections around the world covering the period 1896 to 1926, the year of Monet’s death. I find the world a grim place these days, especially in political terms, but I came away from this exhibition in a far better mood than I have been in a long time. Perhaps that is because it confirmed my belief that artists can become better as they mature. Monet was eighty-six when he died, and the last paintings he completed are among his very best.

All of the paintings, save one, are of the artist’s garden at Giverny. Jean-Paul Riopelle said of this body of work, “It’s unimaginable—such huge, excessive paintings were made in front of such a small, next-to-nothing pond.”It’s easy to see the influence that paintings such as these in the exhibition had on Riopelle and other Abstract Expressionist artists and why Monet ranks among the first tier of early Modernists. His late paintings are about colour and the act of painting and little else, which is quite enough.

Water Lilies, ca. 1914-17
Oil on canvas, 35 ⅜ x 56 in.
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase Mildred Anne Williams Collection, 1973.3 Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Many people are aware of Monet’s water lily paintings and, indeed, there are nineteen examples of this subject in the exhibition. These represent only a fraction of those that he painted at Giverny. He started the series in 1903 and had an exhibition of forty-nine of them in Paris in 1909. Those in the exhibition vary in size from 73 x 92 cm to 200 x 426 cm, but the largest are in series of panels in permanent installations, such as those at the Orangerie in Paris and the MoMA in New York. These works are exciting because they redefine landscape painting, often omitting a horizon line. They are read as a flat and abstract space—a feature that was later to draw the attention of the Abstract Expressionists. Some critics of the time were aghast at Monet’s flaunting of convention but, in general, his 1909 exhibition was enthusiastically received, as he was very popular during his lifetime. Monet proves that an artist can double down on a subject over a period of years with excellent results.

The second-most-numerous use of a subject in Monet: The Late Years is his garden’s Japanese foot bridge, of which eight examples are included. Monet was likely influenced, both in his building of such a bridge in his garden and as a subject for painting, by a series of prints from the early nineteenth century by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1760-1849), whose work he was well aware of. Though I love the water lily paintings, I think that the bridge paintings are the most exciting works in the exhibition. They vary from an early version done in 1899, The Japanese Footbridge, in which the bridge is clearly depicted, to a 1918-24 painting, The Japanese Bridge. In the latter, the abstraction is so complete that, without the title, one would be hard pressed to see it as a painting of a bridge. Monet worked for several years on many of the later bridge paintings, layering coat after coat of paint on them. There are thirty-seven known versions of the Japanese foot bridge works, and thirty-six of them were in his studio at his death. Obviously, they were special to him. Again, the debt that non-objective art owes to Monet is evident.

If I had to describe the exhibition in one word, it would be “ravishing.” To say that the paintings are beautiful would be an understatement.

Much has been said about the effects of cataracts on Monet’s late work. He was diagnosed with glaucoma in 1912 and had surgery on his right eye in 1923. He even tried several types of corrective eyeglasses to solve the problem. During this period, Monet was viewing the world through a yellow cast caused by the cataracts. However, there were varying opinions by his own surgeons on the effects that his eye problems had on his art. Some said the impact was major, while others dismissed it as minimal. Even Monet contradicted himself on how his eye problems affected his work. Another influence was undoubtedly the periods of serious depression that followed the death of his wife, Alice, in 1911 and his son, Jean, in 1914.

Despite his problems, Monet’s late years were prolific and magical. Some might argue that the paintings produced during this period are “fuzzy” and out of focus because he could not see clearly. They should be reminded that another mature artist, Beethoven, composed some of his most sublime works when he was stone deaf. He could hear the music in his head; Monet, just as surely, knew what his paintings looked like through his inner eye. Much of the work of the Impressionists was about beauty, pure and simple. They gave us a banquet for our eyes. Even the term “Impressionism” is based on the title of one of Monet’s paintings, Impression, soleil levant (1872). In this exhibition, Monet gives us a tour of the place he loved best, and we are able to share the experience through his eyes. A painting is an object of contemplation and results from the intention of the artist. That is what makes it art. Monet spent a lifetime making art. Art is not a poor imitation of the real, as Plato might lead us to believe, but an improvement on it, as his latter-day critic Aristotle tells us. What we can learn from Monet is that life is really worthwhile if you take the time to stop and look.

(1) As quoted on a wall panel at Monet: The Late Years.

Monet: The Late Years
Young Museum San Francisco, California
February 16—May 27, 2019

Kimbell Art Museum Fort Worth, Texas
June 16— September 15, 2019